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Low Fertility May Be Here to Stay

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

American Consumers Newsletter
By Cheryl Russell
New Strategist Press

“The most pressing current issue for the Social Security Trustees is how to think about the sharp decline in the total fertility rate,” says Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College in an analysis of Social Security’s 2018 Trustees Report. According to the report, which projects the finances of the Social Security program 75 years into the future, the Social Security Trust Fund this year will collect less through taxes and interest than it pays out in benefits. The fund is projected to run out of money in 2034.

The Trustees need to get the nation's fertility rate right when they project the future finances of the system. That’s because the fertility rate is one of the most important variables for determining the long-term financial stability of the system. For older Americans to receive benefits, younger Americans must pay into the system. Without enough younger Americans, the system breaks down.

Munnell examines historical patterns in fertility to determine whether we can expect the current low rates to rebound as the economy improves. Her analysis focuses on the total fertility rate (TFR) – or the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime based on current age-specific birth rates. In 2017, the TFR was 1.76, well below the TFR of 2.0 assumed by the end of the projection period in the Trustees Report.

Historically, the TFR has fallen during recessions and increased during expansions, Munnell's analysis shows. But this has not happened in recent years. The current low fertility rate is at odds with the ongoing economic expansion. This suggests that it could be a permanent shift. “It seems hard to make the case at this point for a cyclical rebound in the TFR,” Munnell says.

If the nation's low fertility is the new normal, then the Social Security Trust Fund needs to make changes to the program sooner rather than later. This will “share the burden more equitably across cohorts, restore confidence in the nation’s major retirement program, and give people time to adjust to needed changes,” Munnell concludes.

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