For Stronger Families, Focus on Childcare, Not Birthrates

Some people are worried about the fact that the lifetime fertility rate for American women is at an all-time low. But it's wiser to be concerned with policies that support families that already exist.

With the United States birthrate at an all-time low and the lifetime fertility rate per woman at 1.89 kids each, some are looking for ways to return the birthrate to replacement level (2.1), where it stood before the current decline began in 2008.  Some countries facing low birthrates offer payments for kids, while others hope that an improved job market will bring an upswing.

In the United States, some see the low rate as a bargaining chip for better services to families.  Countries with better childcare and family support services have higher birthrates, goes the argument--so if we want higher birthrates, we should improve our services to kids and families too.  Even conservatives like economist Gary Becker are talking in the New York Times about "combat[ing] low fertility by subsidizing education and other costs of children," noting that "subsidies have to be big per child to have a sizable effect."  

Loads of happy, well-educated kids are always a compelling concept, and more family subsidies like good, affordable childcare, better K-12 education and better work/life policies will pay off directly in terms of workforce skills in the short and long term (for parents and for kids).  There's a strong argument for putting such services in place immediately for the sake of our citizenry's happiness, our national skills pool, and our democracy, which demands an educated electorate. 

But a replacement level fertility rate can't be a goal in itself, and a lower birthrate is not the problem scare stories suggest.  Even setting aside for the moment the real environmental concerns of increasing the birthrate, women's lives and careers would be most directly affected by any "family policy" decisions.   Putting pressure on young women to have kids and step out of the education pipeline would not be a good strategy, nor is it likely to be successful.  The examples of Germany, Japan and Italy demonstrate that without a back-up structure of respect for female workers, such policies fail.   

Policy-makers could learn from the new scripts that women are writing and enacting, which allow women to participate more consistently in the workforce and in social decision-making.

When the recession added cuts in jobs and available credit to the difficulties already posed for childrearing by gendered pay inequities and high childcare costs, what was a poor girl to do?  For many it was a choice between her money or her family life, in the short term. Birth control was the logical next step, and the birthrate plunged between 2008 and 2011, hitting and then maintaining that lowest rate in U.S. history in 2012 for the second year running (63.2 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44).   The fall in the rate was overwhelmingly due to declines in births to younger women, going to college in larger numbers and positioning themselves to better afford kids later.  What we've seen is not so much a decline in the number of women who have kids over their lifetimes, or even necessarily in the number of kids they have, as it is the time-lag effect of postponement.  (See this CCF fact sheet and this background piece.)  

These declines make sense, and signal good things for the U.S. workforce, both in terms of the skills of the young women delaying family now and of their kids down the line.  Delay is a class- and education-elevator for the whole family.  But fewer births in the short term make some nervous that young women may never get around to having them at all, or not enough ("enough" being variously defined by different judges, but hard to predict accurately given the quick rise in automation of many positions).  

Within the fast-shifting work scene, women are making responsible decisions.  For decades, budget-conscious families have been figuring out on their own that they benefit substantially when they wait. Per recent work by economist Amalia Miller, for every year that she delays the birth of her first child, the average college graduate woman adds about 12 percent to her long-term earnings.   So a woman who has her first child at 30 (that's average for a grad--even the extraordinary Kate Middleton's entirely normal at 31) will make about twice as much over her career as she would if she had her first upon graduation at 22 (12 percent x 8 = 96 percent).   There's no surprise here for American women, who have been delaying their first children at steadily increasing rates for decades.  Since the math keeps right on going (and, for instance, 12 percent x 16 = 192 percent), you can see the logic that leads so many women to start their families in their late 30s. 

It doesn't take a college degree to figure out that higher pay puts families  in better positions to provide for kids, when they do arrive.  A woman is also much more likely to be married or partnered for the long term at 30 or higher than at 22, which means shared caregiving and a second income, all of which also make childrearing easier.  Everybody loses when the women in their families earn less.  It's not just a women's issue.

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