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The implications of low birthrates 

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South Koreans are en route to become extinct by 2750.

The nation has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. The number of children each woman is predicted to have in her lifetime, the total fertility rate, dropped to an all-time low 0.98 in 2018 (it was 1.73 per woman in the United States in the same year). To maintain its population, a nation must typically sustain a rate of just greater than 2 children per woman.

South Korea's birthrate has spiraled downward for years, despite government efforts to reverse the trend. Since 2005, the government has invested more than $32 billion to improve parental benefits, including easier access to affordable child-care services and cash incentives for young couples to have children. But nothing seems to be working. That has led to concerns over a future labor shortage and increased social benefits costs because a smaller workforce will have to support a disproportionately larger aging population.

Why aren't South Korean women having as many babies? For the same reasons many women in the United States don’t seem to be: lower marriage rates, a higher cost of living often paired with stagnant wages, crippling student loans, delayed childbirth, and forgoing of children altogether.

Long Island is seeing similar trends as those nationwide. According to the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, the number of births in Nassau and Suffolk counties fell by almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2016 and the number of people 19 years old and younger fell by 7.5 percent in the same period. And a 2019 survey by nextLI, a project of Newsday's editorial board, found that 67 percent of 18- to-34-year-olds plan to move to a more affordable place in the next five years. Long Island’s population growth of 0.7 percent is also lower than the 1.2 percent in other New York City suburban counties, according to the Long Island Index, while its general fertility rate has declined far more steeply than that of New York State or the nation as a whole in the past decades. 

Policies that aim to keep young adults from leaving and to attract more people to Long Island — such as those that would address the housing crisis or create more walkable communities — have met fierce pushback from many residents. Meanwhile, birthrates continue to decline, millennials continue to leave and the median age of Nassau-Suffolk’s workforce continues to rise. 

Some places in the United States are more reproductive than others. Data for 2017 released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that women in rural areas tend to have more children than their urban counterparts. There also are striking differences in birthrates between women of different races. Many experts also point to immigration as a key factor for sustained population growth in the United States as it has been on Long Island. With its ironclad policies against immigration and naturalization, South Korea does not have similar ways to maintain its population. A 2014 report commissioned by South Korea's National Assembly forecast the natural extinction of South Koreans by 2750 if the total fertility rate persisted at 1.19 children per woman, but in the four years since the report, it has plummeted even further.

The solution to increase birthrates and prevent brain drain on Long Island seems simple enough: Provide affordable housing and decent wages to combat the higher cost of living. These would tackle at least the biggest concerns that young adults seem to have. But they are easier said than done.  

South Korea is finding that to be true, and as its birthrate continues to plummet, I like to tell people I may become an endangered species. 

Yeji Jesse Lee is an intern with Newsday Opinion. Born in South Korea and raised in Canada, Yeji currently lives in New York but plans to return to South Korea in the near future.   

Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to indicate that the total fertility rate in the United States is  1.73 children per woman.

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