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.

Family isn't all about money, but it's always had an economic underpinning since at its base reproduction is about workforce.  Families enjoy one another's company generally (okay, family has historically comprised a huge part of what people do), but employers and society have a major stake, too, in the work the family does to produce and feed young bodies and educate and civilize young minds, so that a steady stream of able and cooperative workers flows to the job site, wherever it may be.

Back in the pre-contraceptive day, women could be counted on to have and rear kids without compensation or support because  they had few other options, if they had sex.

But since the arrival of hormonal birth control, women have the option not only to have fewer children (the birthrate fell 44 percent in the fifteen years after the Pill arrived in 1960 and has stayed in the same ballpark since), but to have them either much later in life (after they've completed their educations and established at work) or not at all.   Though most people still indicate a desire for kids, others have no interest. ("They're messy," notes one happily childless married woman in her 50s who spent a lot of time babysitting as a teenager.)

With all the time freed up from child-bearing and child-rearing, women have been able to fill in for the "man-hours" lost to the workforce by the birthrate fall.  When women can work in the same jobs as men, only half the number of babies is needed, a more efficient system.  Also a fairer system, as it works out, since only when they're educated and able to earn their own money can women move into policy-making roles in business and society and get their voices and concerns heard.

Only limited adjustments have been made to the family support infrastructure to offset the shift of working women's time into the workplace.  Where other nations supply childcare at public expense, on the principle that a well-educated workforce benefits everyone, the United States provides only limited services, to a limited set of the poor, through Headstart.  Everyone else is on their own, and good care is too pricey for most, which affects both the education of children in bad care and the workforce participation of mothers who stay home or work part time in low-wage jobs to accommodate kids.

Birth control allows women to begin to change the terms of the reproductive deal so that society gets to cover some of the costs of childrearing, from which we all benefit, and women forego less in the way of compensation. Pay equity guarantees and a good, affordable publicly funded childcare system for all families would be a good start.

Recently, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act brought it to the nation's attention that women were getting paid unfairly--but after lots of congratulations for having done something about inequity in restoring women's ability to sue if they find they've been paid less than a man for the same work, the act provided individuals with no basis for finding out if they were unfairly compensated or for ensuring that women would be paid fairly in the first place. That would be covered by the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was rejected by Congress in 2008 and 2011,  and is currently in committee.

On the childcare front, this year President Obama has proposed a national preschool program for low- and moderate-income four-year-olds (essentially an expanded HeadStart) but it has not been enacted to date.  This program would be a huge advance on what we now have: A small percentage of kids in childcare are in accredited centers; many of the rest sit in front of TV sets for their first five years.  Expanding the group in good care and lowering fees would have major impact on workforce skills down the line at the same time that it would improve the lives of families here and now.  (Some cities are taking good childcare funding into their own hands. For instance San Antonio introduced a program in 2012, and Houston has one in the works.)  But Obama's program does nothing to mitigate the high cost of childcare faced by middle-class parents, nor does it serve kids ages zero to three, when a lot of brain development occurs.  So there's plenty of room for thinking further about childcare offerings.

Fair wages and affordable care would make families more fiscally feasible for would-be moms and dads.  That might lead to a rise in the birthrate down the line when educated younger women feel ready. It could also lead  to more efficient work strategies overall that could allow us to function well as a society with a birthrate below replacement and a reasonable immigration policy  Whatever your views on population growth, the reproductive contract has changed.  Some societal investment in the next generation, and in the current generation of female workers and their families, is crucial.