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Editorial: Even having fewer babies has a cost

Times are hard, but it turns out people can boost the economy without any help from Uncle Sam.

All they have to do is have more babies.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, Americans have been having fewer children. Kids are expensive, and if you're jobless or fear unemployment, you don't need any more mouths to feed.

The numbers tell the story. In 2007, the average number of births per American woman was 2.1, or just enough to maintain the population. But last year the rate fell to 1.9 -- the lowest level in decades, and less than that of France and England, although way above many other affluent countries.

The baby bust is making hard times worse by hurting consumer spending. Companies that make pregnancy tests and diapers, for example, report depressed sales. Since immigration is down too, the population has been growing at a historically low rate. Coupled with weak confidence and the determination of consumers to pay down debt, the unfortunate demographic facts mean spending that might otherwise spur faster growth just isn't there.

What a sorry cycle. A tough economy dampens reproduction, and dampened reproduction fosters a tough economy.

Fewer babies translates to fewer workers down the road to support growing numbers of retirees. That could undermine Social Security and Medicare. Without young workers and faster growth, the United States and other rich but aging nations might ultimately have to raise taxes further, reduce retirement benefits, or cut other government spending -- all of which could further limit the economic growth.

It's not easy to entice people to have more offspring, especially with joblessness, at 8.3 percent, still uncomfortably high. And of course it's not a good thing for people to have children they can't afford to take care of.

All in all, the baby bust is yet another reason why we've got to find a way to get the economy moving again. Having kids is expensive, but in the long run, not having them may be far more costly.