The birthrate in the United States is the lowest it’s been in 30 years, we recently learned, and the decline is spreading across age cohorts. In the past, the explanation for this was straightforward: As women gained greater access to educational and workplace opportunities, along with more accessible and effective contraceptives, some of them delayed having children.
And in part, that explanation still holds — especially when it comes to the plummeting birthrate among teenagers, a good thing by all accounts. Were this the extent of the story, and the data, a low birthrate wouldn’t constitute much of a concern. But a closer look reveals two issues — one ethical, one economic.
The ethical concern is that the number of women who want children but aren’t having them is growing. As Lyman Stone wrote in the New York Times, “the gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.” Rather than a “natural” reflection of a changing society, this is a political problem that needs to be addressed.
Just as women should have the choice not to have children — in the substantive sense of being free of the insidious coercion of the market as well as of legal barriers — so too should they be free to raise a family.
But as these numbers show, many women do not have such a choice. That brings us to the economics. Following a significant drop in the birthrate after the 2008 recession, women are continuing to have fewer children. Why hasn’t the rate recovered?
There are many reasons besides economic incentives to put off having children, as Vox’s Julia Belluz points out, but sociologists and economists agree that the economy plays a role. One study even found fertility rates to be a “leading economic indicator” — predicting downturns (and upticks) in advance — while another found the sharp decline in fertility rates to be “closely linked to the souring of the economy” that began around 2008.
One reason for the continuing low fertility rates, then, is that the economy hasn’t recovered. Sure, GDP may be back up and unemployment back down, but the economy isn’t just quantitative; it’s people, and quality of life is a critical measure of economic health. If women want children but think they can’t afford them, the lag in birthrates should raise alarm about just how much “recovery” the average American is experiencing.
Why would we expect millennials saddled with debt to decide it’s a great time to have kids?
Indebtedness is through the roof. Young people — precisely those forgoing childbearing, the dreaded millennials — can barely keep their heads above water. Credit card debt in the US surpassed $1 trillion this year, while student debt hit the $1 trillion mark six years ago. Meanwhile, peruse crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe or Kickstarter and you’ll see that one of the most common reasons people use such sites is to seek help with medical debt. The idea of bringing a child into the world seems irresponsible, or even downright impossible, especially for the many of us who live with our parents, or the many more who rent glorified broom closets in apartments we share with multiple roommates.
And the future? If it looks anything like the past, don’t expect the birthrate to change soon. The average wage for a worker in the US hasn’t budged in 40 years, and with attacks on unions relentless and continuing, that figure may remain the same for the foreseeable future. For those unlucky enough to have been born around 1985, it’s reasonable to expect a “baby bust,” a lost generation of sorts, the product of, as Conor Sen argued at Bloomberg, “hitting every milestone at the worst moment” — from entering a difficult labor market in their 20s to suffering through a tight housing market in their 30s.
Such multiple blows create a deep psychic anxiety and force the forgoing of all sorts of meaningful life choices, having children being just one of them.
Meanwhile, the US remains one of only four countries that don’t mandate paid maternity leave (the other three are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland). And families can’t look to the private sector for such support either. As Amy Westervelt pointed out at the Guardian, only 56 percent of companies in the US offer maternity leave, and of those, 6 percent provide full pay during that leave.
What’s more, paying for child care is almost impossible for millions of Americans. According to a report by New America, the average cost of day care in the US — $9,589 annually — is now higher than the average cost of in-state college tuition. And that all comes, of course, after giving birth, a process that has become almost unfathomably expensive. On average, it costs more than $32,000 to give birth in the US, making it more expensive than in any other country.
In sum, for many Americans, economic trends and entrenched family-unfriendly policies don’t augur well for bringing children into the world. Surrounded by a culture that valorizes insecurity, one that points to the gig economy’s precarity and calls it “flexibility” and “innovation,” it’s no wonder that many no longer believe in the possibility of a stable future.
Politicians frame the threat to Social Security too narrowly, and counsel austerity
The declining birthrate itself has the potential to exacerbate economic strain. The total fertility rate (the number of births each woman is expected to have in her lifetime) in the US dropped to 1.76 in 2017, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 (the rate required to maintain a stable population).
That means that as the population ages, there are fewer workers to pay into Social Security and to care for those who have aged out of the workforce. The declining fertility numbers could provide grist for backward “pro-natalist” policies — restrictions on abortion and contraceptives — that reduce, rather than expand, women’s freedom to choose, while also offering yet another excuse for austerity measures.
Other countries are experiencing side effects of rapidly aging populations far more severe than those in the United States, which thus far has been protected from this issue by immigration. But of course, our immigration policies are changing under President Trump.
Concerns about the welfare state rooted in demographic trends are often framed far too narrowly. Several economists recently argued at the Hill that given the birthrate news, “changes in Social Security eligibility should be put on the table” — including raising the retirement age.
But if conservatives are so concerned with demographic strains — and, judging by Paul Ryan’s bizarre riff in a recent speech about how “we need to have higher birthrates in this country,” they are — let’s levy taxes on corporations and direct that revenue to subsidize elder care and raise the wages of care workers. Our vision need not be restricted to existing patterns of redistribution across the lines of age.
Bolstering our safety net is only one argument for immigration — and not the strongest. Still, it’s one conservatives ought to embrace.
What else can be done about all this? Policies that can make a difference for families that want children include paid parental leave, publicly subsidized child care, an end to workplace discrimination against women in general (and mothers in particular), rent control, universal health care, increases rather than cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the regulation of contract labor in the “gig economy.”
We must also grapple with the possibility that eventually, women in the US will simply not want to have 2.1 children each anymore. That’s okay. That decision isn’t a sign of cultural degeneracy, societal deficiency, or individual failure. Any attempts to reinvigorate ideas of motherhood as the be-all, end-all of women’s lives are misguided and regressive.
Fortunately, there is an obvious fix to the possibility that women in the US may decide, for the long term, that they want fewer children. It’s not an original one, but it works: We can liberalize immigration laws, making it easy, not deadly, for those born outside the US to have a life here. While there is something decidedly creepy about encouraging the free movement of people so that immigrants can replenish an aging population — rather than for the straightforward reasons that it’s the ethical thing to do — we should still insist that those afflicted with birthrate anxiety should embrace the free movement of people across US borders.
After all, those who support the largely bipartisan project of deporting tens of thousands of women and children every year can’t well turn around and fret about the birthrate without conceding that their concern has to do with white women not having enough babies, not the health of the country as a whole.
While birthrates are tantalizingly easy to write off as biological and natural, they are a reflection of political and economic choices. That’s good news! It means that if we want to change them, we can.
We can reconfigure our priorities, valuing people’s abilities to lead dignified lives over their obligations to repay debt. We can catch up to the rest of the world and offer universal policies that would provide the support needed to start, and sustain, a family. We should use the concerns about the lagging birthrate to add urgency to the fight for a more just, equal, and feminist future.
Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin and a PhD student in sociology at Northeastern University. Find her on Twitter @alexnpress.
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