- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. may not have been completely accurate when he said Russia had a “withering economy,” but he was spot on when he said Russia has a “shrinking population base.”

I’ve been studying up on population change, as I think it’s the paramount family issue for this century. Healthy nations have total fertility rates of at least 2.13 children per woman. This rate means a nation’s population is replacing itself, and is therefore stable.

However, dozens of nations have fertility rates below 2.1, which means, barring immigration or a reversal of that trend, that their populations will shrink. Russia’s anemic fertility rate of 1.4 puts it in the demographic basement with many countries, including Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece.

Numerically, Russian’s population is projected to shrink alarmingly. After peaking at 148.4 million in 1995, Russia’s population may fall to 137.9 million by 2015 and as low as 119.0 million by 2045, according to the United Nations Population Division’s midrange estimates.

“Marxist theory famously envisioned the ‘withering away’ of the state upon the full attainment of Communism,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt wrote in an April article called “Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb.”

That utopia never arrived, he wrote, but what’s happening in Russia could be described “as the ‘withering away’ of the family itself.”

I share President Obama’s interest in seeing a “strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia.” I interpret that as a revival of happily married, two-parent families and plenty of little Levs, Sashas and Tatianas.

There are many barriers to this, though. Russia has high cohabiting rates (about 45 percent of Russian women have cohabited by age 25, Mr. Eberstadt wrote) and the world’s highest annual abortion rate (54 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, according to the U.N. Statistics Division for 2004).

Russian life expectancy is a shockingly low 62 years for men and 74 years for women - an outcome that Mr. Eberstadt attributes, in part, to rampant alcohol abuse. U.S. life expectancy, by comparison, is 75 years for men and 80 years for women.

Russian leaders do not need Mr. Biden to tell them they have a population problem; they are already throwing around birth-encouraging ideas such as bonuses for second children, paid maternity leave and subsidies for child care.

What else, besides money, might help to increase a subpar fertility?

Researchers have found that, at least in developed nations, a woman’s fertility intentions (how many babies she wants to have) can predict how many babies she will, in fact, have. And what might affect a woman’s intentions to have, say, two or more children? Certainly, having a husband, money, good health and a stable life are important influences.

But I was intrigued by three things Mr. Eberstadt listed in a 2007 article on America’s “demographic exceptionalism.”

“The main explanation for the U.S.-Europe fertility gap may lie not in material factors but in the seemingly ephemeral realm of values, ideals, attitudes and outlook,” he wrote in the American Interest.

Americans tend to be more optimistic about the future than Europeans, he noted. They are also more likely to be “proud” of their country, and be more religious and worship regularly.

Putting this all together, the way to boost a nation’s faltering fertility might be to uphold religious freedom and inspire hope in young people that they have a bright future, in a good nation. They may very well respond by deciding to take a chance and have a family.

c Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at


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