by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Last week the National Center for Health Statistics reported that America’s general fertility rate hit a record low in 2017. That record — bad enough on its own — raised eyebrows in part because it came amid a relative economic boom. As Washington Post columnist Christine Emba notes, “Birthrates tend to drop during periods of economic distress as people put off having babies, but potential parents usually get back to business once the economy rebounds.
The University of Virginia’s W. Bradford Wilcox has been sounding the alarm for some time, noting not just declining American birth rates but also declining marriage rates and apparently declining interest in sex, even among young adults. In a long and thoughtful Politico essay a few months ago, he explored multiple reasons for these declines, including cultural confusion in the aftermath of #MeToo, the prevalence of porn, and a smartphone culture that makes relationships increasingly virtual.
I think all of these explanations are valid, in part. After all, when dealing with sweeping cultural transformations in a continent-sized nation of more than 320 million people, you’ll rarely find any single cause. So let me add one more.
Our nation faces a mental-health crisis. In many ways, our culture is increasingly marked by depression, anxiety, and despair. The numbers can feel so big, so shocking as to be overwhelming. I’ve written many times about the “deaths of despair” that are actually decreasing life expectancy in the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation. When more Americans die from drug overdoses each year than fell to enemy fire in the whole Vietnam War, we know we face an extraordinary challenge.