The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that the United States birth rate has fallen to its lowest point since 1979. While the news was unsurprising to fertility experts, who expected that the pandemic and subsequent recession would result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021, the online discourse quickly became heated over the birth rate decline, its perceived consequences and what, if anything, should be done by policymakers to reverse the trend.
As two women in our 30s who have made different decisions about fertility, we believe that the choice about whether to have children is an incredibly personal one.
According to the CDC, the U.S. is now “below replacement levels” — meaning that more people die per year than are born. Some of that drop can be explained by lower rates of pregnancy among teenagers (a welcome decrease), but Millennials, who came of age during the Great Recession and have suffered two successive economic shocks, are still having fewer children than previous generations. Economic pressures – such as student loans, the cost of child care and the cost of housing – are undoubtedly shaping when and whether Millennials decide to have children.
While previous sociological studies would expect birthrates to fall as education and income increase, no longer do highly educated women have fewer children than less educated women in the United States. American women with advanced degrees have more kids on average than those with only bachelor's degrees. This is possibly because of the high cost of raising children and the fact that women with advanced degrees are likely in a better position to financially support them.
Further, we know that the birth rate is not falling because women want fewer children. In fact, American women are having fewer children than they’d like. On average, women report wanting 2.6 children but having only 1.73. The same survey found that financial concerns contributed to people having fewer children: 64 percent said child care was too expensive, 43 percent said financial instability forced them to wait and about 40 percent cited a lack of paid family leave as a reason they had fewer children.
These findings suggest that if more women had the support that women with advanced degrees have (including affordable child care and paid leave), the fertility rate could increase. There is evidence from other countries, such as Australia, that when paid leave is implemented, fertility rates rise among women of childbearing age.
Furthermore, there is a preponderance of evidence that the school closures and child care caused by COVID-19 forced many women out of the labor force or shifted the caregiving burden solely on mothers, and that these disruptions may have contributed to some holding off on having children. While the pandemic might be temporary, the fact remains that the bulk of childrearing falls on women, which can make it hard to have both a meaningful career and parent. But while the long-term effects of the pandemic on birthrates remain to be seen, the impact may be small if the United States can pass policies that better support families.
How can we support families to achieve the economic security required to care for and realize their desired family size?
Last month, recognizing the difficulties faced by millions of families, the White House released the American Families Plan, which includes many family-friendly policies targeted to working households. The package would fund universal pre-kindergarten and paid leave, as well as an expanded child tax credit that would be refundable to families that don’t earn enough to pay taxes.
These are certainly goals progressives should support. As the White House and Congress work out the details, we urge policymakers to tackle these critical challenges facing America’s low- and middle-income families:
- Weak support for working women: Other wealthy countries subsidize more extensive child care and preschool, have paid family and sick leave, and provide more affordable health care coverage. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gaping holes in the U.S. social safety net, and women are most likely to slip through them. They are the primary care givers to children and often aging relatives, and stay-at-home orders have made it harder for them to balance family and career. The government’s disappointing April jobs report showed that, on net, all the job gains went to men while 64,000 fewer women were employed or looking for work.
- The high cost of raising a child: Based on the most recent data available, the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that a two-child, married couple family will spend $233,610 to raise a child, and that’s excluding the cost of a college education.
- The high cost of health care: A recent Gallup poll found that more than half of survey respondents reported being either "concerned" or "very concerned" that the cost of health care services (53 percent) and the cost of prescription drugs (52 percent) will rise to a level where they will be unaffordable. Forty-two percent of respondents said they would not be able to pay for a major health event.
- The high cost of having a baby: According to a 2020 study, the out-of-pocket costs of having a baby are increasing even as the total cost of care remains steady. In 2015 (the most recent year data were available), the average out-of-pocket cost for a birth and delivery was $4,500-$5,161— more than the monthly salary of the average American woman.
- Big debts and small savings: The lower fertility rates among Millennials and younger Zoomers may in part be explained by their historically high levels of education debt and a generational slow-down in savings and wealth accumulation. These realities, plus mounting housing costs, appear to be causing many young couples to delay or avoid marriage. It’s hard to imagine paying for your child’s education when you are still paying off your own.
Passing long overdue family-friendly programs would make it easier for women to have both the careers and families they desire. While no woman should be expected to have children because “it’s good for the economy,” they should be empowered to build the family and career they choose.
Arielle Kane is director of health policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, where Veronica Goodman is director of social policy.