‘The more, the merrier’ — why we need babies and immigrants

The national birth rate continues to slide; only immigration keeps the United States from shrinking demographically.

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Two women displaying citizenship certificates.

A new crop of Americans happily show off their citizenship certificates after a ceremony in Chicago in 2013.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Did you have a nice Thanksgiving? I hope so. We sure did. One for the record books, actually. Two turkeys, one roasted, one fried. Three types of cranberry sauce. Four pies, that I tasted personally — slivers of pumpkin, pecan, cherry and key lime.

Twenty-seven guests, from California to New York. Ranging in age from 87 (my dad) to 5 (the youngest of eight nieces, six of whom were there). Not counting my first great-nephew waiting in the wings, courtesy of a niece eight and a half months pregnant. Anticipation of the Big Event gave Thanksgiving 2019 extra sparkle.

A baby is an increasing rarity nowadays — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last Wednesday that the U.S. birth rate slipped again in 2018: down 2 percent, the lowest in 32 years.

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Why? Good question. Journalists immediately rounded up the usual suspects.

“The birthrate is a barometer of despair,” one demographer suggested. Unemployment is low, but the jobs available tend to be marginal, benefitless, future-free gigs that don’t encourage those grinding away at them to take up the task of starting a new generation in between driving Uber fares and pulling lattes.

Children are the ultimate luxury, more expensive than any vacation or car or most houses. Little howling money sponges, not to forget time-consuming, emotionally draining and physically demanding, if you do it right.

That frank assessment should not discourage anyone from having kids. They’re the best. Like any difficult endeavor — climbing Mount Everest, flying to the moon — the satisfaction is commensurate with the difficulty. Now that old age is setting out its tools of torture and the standard markers of success —money, status, career — flicker and fade into insignificance, kids matter more than ever.

They certainly mattered at Thanksgiving. The boys provided vital logistical support, hauling up dozens of folding chairs from the basement, acting as Shakespearean couriers, delivering messages, moving the plot along. The day after Thanksgiving, my younger son slyly suggested he and I go pick up the pizza 20 minutes before we needed to leave, just to withdraw me from the “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” scene that inevitably threatens whenever I’m with my parents. I was more impressed with that than when he made Law Review.

Kids matter to our country. One statistic I noticed in the cyclone of reportage on the CDC announcement is how long it’s been since the United States birth rate was high enough to replace those lost by death: 1971.

So how is our nation’s population still increasing? Why aren’t we in a demographic death spiral, like Japan? Good questions, and here demographers have a definitive answer: immigration. The only reason our country is growing and not shrinking is because the world sees us as a good place to come to and we let them in. Without immigration, we’d be toast.

Something to bear in mind, if you are the sort of person who can bear complex things in mind, as impeachment unfolds and the details of the president’s crime become ever more clear. His betrayal of our national interests in Ukraine as he grasped for personal political gain, while foul and repugnant and worthy of the disgust of any patriotic American, is not the greatest damage he has caused this country. That would be, still, his calumny against immigrants already here and his attempt to close the spigot allowing more. Not just morally wrong, but an economic disaster, cutting off the country’s lifeblood.

Sure, there is always a moment of fear: how will we manage? For celebrations as well as for nations. Our 27 Thanksgiving guests stretched the physical limits of our house to entertain at dinner. And yet I caught my wife inviting more, insisting those two absent Texas nieces join us next year.

Before the holiday, I half-jokingly suggested we pare the list. “Maybe we need to start alienating people,” is how I put it. But this Thanksgiving was so warm and wonderful, when she speculated we’d have to put the overflow downstairs, I countered: “Or, we could put a big heated tent in the backyard and seat everybody there.”

Her face lit up. A good idea! Sure, a big heated tent would be expensive. But a generous heart is the sign of true prosperity: economic, emotional, political. In both holiday celebrations and national health: the more, the merrier.

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