Let's Not Panic Over Women With More Education Having Fewer Kids

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Though the phenomenon has been called "reverse Darwinism," a look at the facts and figures reveals it's not as scary as it seems.

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AP / Amy Sancetta

Women with more education have fewer children—which is one of the reasons why extending equal access to education for women is so important. Women with more education have more opportunities for productive lives doing work other than childrearing. All around the world, when education levels rise, fertility levels fall.

That doesn't mean we have to sacrifice the future of humanity on the altar of gender equality, but it does mean we have to figure out how to raise and support fewer children to be happy and productive (as the economist Nancy Folbre explains).

I wrote about fertility last week, and I'm dwelling on the subject because of What To Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster, Jonathan Last's panic-book about low fertility. The argument and information in the book aren't new, but he provides a good example of common misperceptions that are worth considering. At first glance, the argument doesn't seem to have a conservative political impetus—after all, who's against children? But that only makes it more important to understand fertility in the context of gender equality.

The general relationship between the number of children women have and their relative status in society is clear: Fewer children means higher status. And the relationship is reciprocal: Higher status for women also leads to lower fertility.

Further, the relationship appears at both the individual level and the societal level. Countries with lower fertility levels have, on average, less gender inequality in the realms of education, income, political and social power. Here is the relationship between total fertility (average number of children per woman) and the UN's gender inequality index, which combines reproductive health, political representation, educational and labor force equality. (I made bigger dots for bigger countries, and colored the U.S. dot blue.)

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This shows two things:

  • First, there are no societies with high fertility and low gender inequality.
  • Second, there is a range of gender inequality among the low-fertility countries.

I interpret the pattern like this: There is a lot that can be done about gender inequality—once fertility rates are reduced.

This can be a confusing subject, and Last provides a good example of that. Along the way to arguing that we need more babies in the U.S. (and almost everywhere else), Last complains that poor people are aping the low-fertility behavior of the modern, liberal, feminist, self-centered middle class. The poor are having too few children. But he also complains they are having all the children. He writes:

The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.

And he writes:

What we have, then, is a picture of an American middle class that is surprisingly barren ... Women who go to college or graduate school are unlikely to have even two children. ... It's a kind of reverse Darwinism where the traditional markers of success make one less likely to reproduce.

Going further than "reverse Darwinism," Last also said on his Glenn Beck network appearance that we have "survival of the weakest in a way, but even worse." (In fairness, by that point in the conversation, everyone was getting pretty confused.)

But before debunking this interpretation of the facts, we might first wonder if the facts are even true. In the world of conservative news, it would seem that poor people are sucking the government dry while overpopulating the country with paupers and criminals. Meanwhile, to others—admittedly the set I'm more familiar with—children are seen as the accessories of the narcissistic elite, and rich people are having more kids.

The facts, though, are that poor women have more children (and women with more children are poorer), and that the fertility rates of more-educated women are rising, not falling.

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Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes regularly at Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change

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