OXFORD — Back in the days when daily newspapers published free obituaries, reporters assigned to write them sometimes jokingly complained about retired farmers.
Their list of survivors tended to be long, thus requiring more time to type them into the obits, as well as increasing the possibility for error, such as misspelling a name.
I don’t know if there’s any empirical evidence to prove it, but more children did seem to be produced by those who tilled the land before mechanization and chemicals took over much of the labor on the farm.
Working on the family farm wasn’t the only reason for those large families of earlier years, but the children of the Mississippi farmers of the early and mid-20th century did their share of the chores.
One of my friends, who grew up on a farm, says his brother joined the Navy as soon as he became of age and joked, “I’ll never again tell a mule, ‘Get up,’ unless he’s laying on me.”
Judging from recent census reports, America — including Mississippi — could use a few more retired farmers.
An Associated Press article, citing government reports, says that the nation’s birth rates for women in their teens and 20s reached record lows last year, leading to the fewest babies in 32 years.
“The fertility rate of 1.7 births per U.S. woman also fell 2%, meaning the current generation isn’t making enough babies to replace itself,” the article said, going on to opine: “If trends continue, experts said, the U.S. can expect labor shortages including in elder care when aging baby boomers need the most support.”
However, the article goes on to say:
“Other experts are not concerned, predicting today’s young women will catch up with childbearing later in their lives. The only two groups with slightly higher birth rates in 2018 were women in their late 30s and those in their early 40s.”
A lower birth rate isn’t all bad — including a statistic that shows births to teenagers reached a record low. If fewer younger, unmarried teenagers are having babies, that's a good thing.
But the prospect of fewer people entering the work force impacts two major issues in politics these days; Social Security and immigration.
It’s common knowledge that the trend of fewer workers paying into Social Security and more drawing from it hasn’t just started. It’s been going on for years, and a lower birth rate, if it isn’t reversed, will exacerbate the problem.
Social Security is a subject politicians don’t talk about much, other than promise to protect it. Few of them want to address the difficult choices needed to fix the problem. Elections are not won by promising to raise the Social Security tax, reducing benefits or raising the age of retirement.
It’s more popular, especially in Trump country, to rail against immigration, although immigrants — legal and illegal — appear to be a large part of the workforce in jobs that still require a measure of manual labor.
Here in Mississippi, which keeps losing population, the birth rate isn’t as much of an issue as is the exodus of many of the brightest who are born in the state.
Unfortunately, the small farms that once supported large families seem to be pretty much a thing of the past. And few young people want to do farm work anyway. They would rather have the amenities of city life.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.