Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/August 1903/The Declining Birth Rate and its Cause




IN the May number of The Popular Science Monthly Professor Thorndike discusses the question of the low birth rate among college graduates, presenting statistics from New York University, Middlebury College, and Wesleyan University, which confirm the report of President Eliot of Harvard University. These statistics show pretty conclusively that the birth rate among families of college graduates, at least in the east, is not large enough to keep up their numbers, and the question at once arises whether this tendency is confined to the intellectual classes or whether it applies to others as well. In either case it is of the utmost importance to understand the cause of the phenomenon. Let us consider then, first, the evidence of a low birth rate outside the circle of college graduates, and, secondly, let us consider the possible causes of a low birth rate.

The evidence concerning the natural increase of the population in this country is exceedingly meager. In the first place comparatively little attention has been given to the question here, because we have come to think that, though it is a question which France has to wrestle with, it has nothing to do with a new country like the United States. Again, owing to the different conditions existing in different districts, and to the different social conditions in the same district, a solution of the question would require detailed statistics which are not available for any large area of the United States. Very fair results may be obtained, however, by studying the population of a single state or city along national lines. The results which have already been obtained by this method in Massachusetts throw considerable light upon the question of the natural increase of our population.

Mr. Kuczynski, a Washington statistician, has made an exhaustive study of the statistics of Massachusetts and has concluded that the native population of Massachusetts is dying out.[1] His study extends over the period from 1885 to 1897. He shows, first, that the marriage rate among the natives is much smaller than among the foreign born for all ages up to 45. The marriage rate of unmarried males, 15 years of age and older, is, native born, 47.7; foreign born, 68.9; and for females, native born, 40, foreign born, 56.8. Secondly, the proportion of sons married among the natives is much smaller than among the foreign born, and the difference is particularly great at the most fruitful periods of life. Thirdly, the proportion of married women that have never had children is much greater among the natives than among the foreign born. It is one fifth among the natives and two fifteenths among foreigners. Fourthly, the birth rate among married women of child bearing age is much larger among foreign born. The figures are 142.47 per mille for natives and 251.76 for foreign born. Finally, an interesting result for our purpose is that for the period under discussion, 1885-1897, the marriage rate and the proportion of married women were decreasing among the natives and increasing among the foreigners. And the refined birth rates were fairly steady for the natives, but increasing for the foreign born.

As to the question of whether the native population is actually keeping up its numbers or not, after showing the paucity of our vital statistics as compared with those of Berlin, Mr. Kuczynski says, "But as the tables of fecundity of Berlin show that, with an annual special birth rate of ten for every hundred women in child-bearing age, in 1891-95, the births were one ninth behind the number necessary to keep the population of Berlin stationary, it is probable that the native population of Massachusetts, with a special birth rate of 6.3 births for every 100 adult women in child bearing age, and a mortality of the female sex not correspondingly lower than that of Berlin, can not only not hold its own, but is dying out at a considerable pace."[2] In studies which I have made upon the population of Boston by nationalities[3] practically the same results were obtained, although there was less opportunity to make a detailed study of the birth rates. The figures for Boston indicate that the negroes and the native whites are failing to keep up their numbers—the former on account of a high death rate and the latter on account of a low birth rate. On the other hand, all the foreign born groups show a natural increase, though the rate of increase varies greatly with the different nationalities. On the whole, the most recently immigrating nationalities have the highest birth rates.

The statistics, although somewhat fragmentary, seem to show that in Massachusetts, and probably also in other sections of the country having similar social conditions, the older part of the population, represented roughly by native Americans, is slowly dying out because of the low birth rate. If this is true the conditions in the older parts of the United States bear a strong resemblance to those in France, except that in the latter country the population as a whole fails to increase, while in this country it is only a section of the population. In the United States, and even in Massachusetts, the population as a whole is increasing, but the increase is confined for the most part apparently to the immigrating classes. Inasmuch as the failure to increase is confined to only a part of the population in the United States, it is extremely difficult to ascertain the exact situation by statistical means. An insidious loss may be going on in a particular direction and still be undiscovered because of defective mortality statistics.

These statistics put the whole native population of Massachusetts in the same position as college graduates, and the question accordingly seems to be one of the upper class or of the older part of the population and not simply a question of the educated classes.

In the absence of further statistics upon the subject, it will be of assistance to ascertain, by theoretical law if possible, the causes which contribute to these suicidal tendencies in the population. Laws of population have been formulated from similar experiences in other countries, and among these laws we may find one which will throw light upon our own situation.

It will not be worth while to review the common theories of population and show their application to our present conditions. The theory of Malthus, or even that of Spencer, will be of little avail, as the birth rate in the United States is not greatly affected by physical causes. And, although some writers have pointed to a possible biological cause, it is improbable that in a new country like the United States even the older part of the population could, as a class, be losing its fertility, when in so many of the older countries the fertility of the population is still good.

To social causes, primarily, are due the differences in the fecundity of civilized peoples. Therefore I shall present what may be called a social law of population. From the nature of the case any law of population must be exceedingly general, because a great number of conditions directly or indirectly affect the birth rate, and these secondary causes differ in different localities. The law which I am about to consider explains the situation only in a general way. Some of the special conditions which affect the birth rate here I shall discuss later on. This law of population is one formulated by a French student of demography, Arséne Dumont. In brief M. Dumont's theory is that population increases inversely with 'social capillarity.' This expressive phrase is almost self-explanatory. Among progressive peoples a strong tendency exists for men to improve their condition, and in a democratic country society yields somewhat to efforts in this line. If competition is severe it will be necessary for men to make a great effort to raise their standard of living, or sometimes, even to maintain the accustomed standard. Population is regulated by the intensity of the effort made. Of course the check to population resulting from the desire for social betterment is a purely voluntary one, yet it is a good example of a social law that men under certain conditions will choose to refrain from having large families.

In applying this law it must be borne in mind that conditions vary greatly with different individuals and with different countries. If a man is able to raise his standard of living without great exertion, as is usually the case in a new country, no check to population may be expected. Or, if a man by exceptional abilities is able to maintain a high standard of living with comparative ease, he will not be influenced by the same considerations as the average man. If, on the one hand, men who easily raise their standard of living propagate freely, those who are unable to change their social position at all also propagate freely. In a caste system of society, or in an absolute despotism like that of Russia, the lower classes propagate blindly because they see no possibility of rising. No 'social capillarity' exists for them. In other words population is not held in check by a social law, but by a physical one. It is limited by the means of subsistence, according to the Malthusian law. Even among the lower classes of a great industrial center the same principle acts. Unskilled laborers attain the maximum wage at an early age and increased efforts on their part affect their social condition so little that they do not feel the social check and therefore propagate recklessly from hopelessness. A man in the lowest social class has no social position to lose, and only the best equipped can improve their condition sufficiently to feel the social restriction on population. To advise the laboring classes to limit their numbers in order to improve their condition, as the old economists did, is putting the cart before the horse. When the economic condition of the lowest industrial class improves enough to give its members some hope, they will begin to limit their numbers voluntarily in order further to improve their condition.

If, then, the class that rises easily in the social scale and the class which does not rise at all propagate freely the social check applies to that large class which rises, though only with great effort. It would appear then that in a pure democracy where increased reward always followed increased effort, the population would regulate itself automatically, because increased population would increase competition and that would bring about the social check. Its application to some of our large cities will be readily understood by those who are acquainted with the social conditions existing in them. Their enormous increase of population has increased competition to such an extent that only the best equipped—as compared with other members of the same class, not with inferior classes—can easily maintain the standard of living set by their own particular classes. Consequently the cares of a family are deferred. If one enters the lodging houses in the south and west ends of Boston, for example, one will find a large class of lodgers from northern New England and from the British Provinces, the majority of whom are not married and never will be. This class represents a part of the population which is refraining from marriage in order to keep up its social position. In the words of M. Dumont, 'social capillarity' is so strong that they refrain from marriage. This state of affairs is unfortunate for the future good of the city. Cities have come to depend upon fresh blood from the country to reinforce their declining stock, and there is no reason to believe that former immigrants from rural sections found it necessary to refrain from marriage as the present immigrants do. In other words, a change is taking place in the character of the population of large cities which only the next generation will realize. Cities of the present time are making use of rural Americans and also of the children of rural Americans who came to the city about the middle of the nineteenth century. In the next generation the proportion of children of rural immigrants will be greatly reduced, and the probabilities are that the largest cities will offer small inducements for the immigration of rural Americans.

With this application of the general law of population I pass to the discussion of two conditions in the eastern part of the United States which tend to intensify the action of this law and make the birth rate in this new country as low as it is in some of the old European countries. First, the increased competition which naturally results from a growing population has been augmented by the entrance of women into industrial pursuits. As women find fewer opportunities for marriage, they throw themselves into industrial life, and by their increased competition make the possibility of marriage even more remote. As writers have frequently noted the depression of wages resulting from the competition of women, however, I will pass on to the second phenomenon which affects the social law of population—that is, immigration. Competition resulting from increased population is much more serious if it is caused by the incoming of classes on a different social plane. Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants compete indirectly, and frequently directly with American labor, yet these immigrants live in a different world and under different conditions from the American laborer. Most foreigners form a stratum below Americans. Between the lodging house and the tenement is a wide gap which is not paralleled by an industrial separation. Americans in lodging houses are not attempting so much to raise their standard as they are to retain the accustomed standard of their homes and to save themselves from falling into the social position of the foreign population.

When Francis Walker was director of the United States Census, he went so far as to maintain that the population of the country would have been just as large if there had been no foreign immigration, since the older American elements would then have multiplied much more rapidly than they have. This is without doubt an extreme statement, yet it is true that the multiplication of foreign peoples has seriously checked the growth of the old American stock. It may be that in the distant future the mixture of all the European peoples will produce a race superior to any we have yet seen. It is well to bear in mind, however, that in forming a race of unknown value, there is being sacrificed a race of acknowledged superiority in originality and enterprise.

The relative decrease of the native stock is, however, far more noticeable than its absolute decrease. For example, from the last statistics available for Boston it appears that the Russian Jews increased by propagation 25 per cent, between 1890 and 1895, and the Italians increased 21 per cent, during the same period, while the native born decreased slightly. And this phenomenal natural increase of the Italians and the Jews takes on an added significance from the fact that during the same period of five years the Italians increased 67 per cent, and the Jews 51 per cent, by immigration.

Foreign immigrants, after being in this country for some time, seem to be affected in much the same way as the native born. However, the pressure of competition from recent immigration does not affect them 60 much as it does the greater part of the native born, for a greater social cleavage exists between the rural Americans and foreign immigrants than between the old and new immigrants. Yet the Irish and the Germans, at least in Boston, have a much smaller birth rate than the Italians and the Jews, and also than they themselves had in 1850.

Mr. Kuczynski, in his study of Massachusetts, continually contrasts the statistics for the native born with those for the foreign born, but there is more than a contrast, there is a causal connection. The rapid influx of foreigners and their unrestrained increase necessarily affects the native born. And the evil effects arise from the competition in industrial pursuits of people of different social standards. If the immigrants were of the same ideals and standards as the native Americans, the results would be different. The increased competition would bring about a lowering of the birth rate, but the restraint would be mutual to both natives and foreigners. In the present case, however, where the standards are different the prudential restraint is exercised only by the group which has a social standard to maintain. Is it not from a sense of self preservation that castes tend to be formed in a society consisting of distinct social classes, so that each caste shall have its separate sphere of employment and competition between castes shall be eliminated as much as possible? Otherwise the upper classes would tend to be obliterated by the competition of the lower classes.

To sum up, then, we may say that the study of the statistics available in the light of recent theories of population gives us a reasonable understanding of the natural increase of the population. Statistics show that in Massachusetts at least the native population which includes the upper classes is losing ground. That this loss is due to the effort necessary to maintain or raise the social position caused by strong competition is shown by the fact that the marriage rate as well as the birth rate is low. This competition is caused largely by the influx of foreigners who tend to compete with the natives, but do not share with them the dread of lowering the social standard. If the increased population came wholly from within the state, the population would tend to regulate itself automatically, but when the increase is largely imposed upon a state from without, and this foreign element reproduces itself rapidly it may have a serious influence upon the native population without being very apparent. The economic question is by no means the most important one to consider in the problem of immigration. It is a race question and the birth rate shows the racial group that is to survive. If, however, it is found that the stratum of society which has the highest development tends to be blotted out by the increase of the lower strata, the cause of progress will demand that the course of natural selection be interfered with by removing the continual external pressure on the native stock.

  1. Quarterly Journal of Economics, November, 1901, February, 1902.
  2. Quarterly Journal of Economics, February, 1902, p. 184.
  3. Publication American Economic Association, May, 1903.