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Valerie Young's picture

It’s all about who is having babies – or perhaps more accurately, who is NOT having babies. The declining birth rate in the U.S. prompted much discussion, some of which you’ll find below. The only thing the writers agree on is that fewer women are opting to become mothers. Arguments differ as to why motherhood has become less appealing, and whether a slower rate of population growth is a good or a bad thing. Whatever the verdict, a declining birth rate will force change in public policy – fewer people mean fewer workers generating smaller tax revenue. The economy may shrink, sending shock waves from one coast to another. Children may be regarded more as high status luxury items, especially if it takes higher incomes to cover the considerable costs of child care and rearing. Employers will be competing for a smaller pool of potential workers. Remember also that fewer women are marrying. How will men adapt to the decrease in their traditional roles of husband and father? One way or the other, fewer moms having fewer babies will set in motion changes felt in every corner of society and reflected in every political decision we make.

It all began when the Pew Research Center compared birth rates over recent years as recorded by the National Center for Health Statistics. Overall, the birth rate for U.S. women fell 6% between 2007 and 2010. Broken down by ethnicity, the decreases were bigger. The birth rate for black women was off by 9%, and for Hispanic women by 13%. The decrease was even more dramatic for women now living in the U.S. but born abroad. Typically, they have more children than American women. Overall, the birth rate of foreign born mothers now living in the U.S. had dropped by 14%.  U.S. mothers born abroad who are Hispanic had the largest decline, a whopping 19%. That’s in just three years. These figures are summed up in this handy chart.

For decades now, U.S. women have been having fewer children. The massive shift of women into the paid workforce and the availability of contraception generally, and the pill in particular, were some of the dynamics responsible. But immigrant women had been having much larger families, so the overall birth rate had remained high enough to sustain workforce demands and generate enough tax revenue to support our federal “pay as you go” entitlement programs. As long as foreign born women settled here and had children, the growing demands of a rising population would keep the various parts of the economy in proportion and expanding. The new figures suggest that this may be changing. Probably because of the economic downturn, at least in part, immigration into the U.S. from Mexico has totally dried up. For the first time in 80 years, reports the Washington Post, migration from Mexico has all but ceased. Mexico was the single greatest source of Hispanic migration into the U.S. The birth rate for foreign born Hispanic mothers has fallen off the most, by 19%. Suddenly, it appears that all those workers who were going to be paying into Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare in future decades may not be showing up as expected.

In the past, birth rates more or less tracked economic expansion and restriction.  Birth rates may drop during a depression, but they usually swing back up when jobs are thick on the ground and economic security is a realistic objective. However, there’s reason to believe that may not be the case this time. Turning again to foreign born mothers, the ones who’ve been propping up our birth rate, they appear to be having fewer children for other reasons as well. The longer they are in the U.S., the likelier they are to use birth control, emergency contraception, and have access to better sex education. They are limiting the number of pregnancies to solidify their own economic status. They correlate a higher standard of living to a smaller number of children. These behaviors could well continue even when the economy returns to full steam. What then?

Writing in the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat pointed out that public policy had some tools that could be used to encourage women to take the flying leap into motherhood.

Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference. 

Over at The Broad Side, Rebekah Kuschmider says there’s no need to zero in on specific pro-nativist policies. She says the way to increase reproduction is as easy as 1 – 2 – 3. First, increase the minimum wage, which at $7.25 per hour is far too low to cover even the basics for a household with children. Make full-time work produce a living wage, which allows a family to be housed and fed with dignity intact. Second, subsidize the cost of child care. For many households, the cost of care equals or exceeds the income of a working adult. Making quality care affordable will remove a huge disincentive to having children. Third, ensure affordable access to health care. Even with insurance today, out-of-pocket expenses for routine prenatal care, delivery and the child’s first year are well into tens of thousands of dollars. As it is now, childbirth is often the event which propels a family into a period of poverty. It’s no wonder the stork is visiting less often!

Katha Pollitt, on the other hand, really lets fly in The Nation. She finds the notion of tossing a few policy incentives towards women absurd:

Would you have an extra baby if you got a bigger tax deduction for it? If your boss let you work ten hours a day four days a week or one afternoon at home? If college was a little less expensive? (And how is that supposed to happen, I wonder, without massive government subsidies? See above: “tax cuts.”) I doubt it. France and Sweden have massive, comprehensive, well-thought-out programs to make motherhood less onerous: generous parental leave (in Sweden the father must take part of it), national healthcare that covers birth control and abortion care, good schools, excellent daycare and preschool, a panoply of family subsidies and worker protections. Higher education is basically free. For the working-class people Douthat focuses on, life is just better. Single mothers—yes, sluts—can manage well. Those countries acknowledge that mothers work, and want to work, and that all children deserve a decent upbringing. According to UNICEF, in France the child poverty rate is 8.8 percent; in Sweden it’s 7.3 percent. In the United States, by contrast, it’s a staggering 23.1 percent.

I think Ms. Pollitt has the better side of this argument. Children belong in the realm of private life in our American mentality. How many there are and how they are raised are subjects kept within the family circle. But the personal domain will be breached when birth rates are involved, because birth rates immediately ripple into economic dynamics, public welfare and our political institutions. By holding American babies at a distance, legislators have refused for decades to deal with new issues raised by a workforce of women as well as men. Policy makers have failed to act on paid parental leave, paid sick days and part-time worker parity. Child care is only subsidized for those in extreme poverty, and both quality and access are grossly inadequate. Family carework has remained primarily female, contributing to both the pay gap and low percentages of women in the upper echelons of business, politics, the professions and academia. The most damning evidence of all is the appalling rate of child poverty in this country, the sole remaining super power, the greatest nation on earth and the richest country the world has ever seen. At 23.1%, it’s obvious that “family values” don’t hold a prominent place on our policy agenda. Children do poorly because women do not possess the political and economic power to secure the kind of stability in which they may thrive. I for one don’t blame women one bit for limiting the overwhelming responsibilities that come with motherhood by limiting their pregnancies.

So, will the falling birthrate finally persuade policy makers to take a more active role in family policy? If increasing birth rates is the goal, will women have more leverage and influence in implementing practical changes in how we work and care for the young? Or will we follow a different tack and idealize motherhood to the point where it becomes the preferred goal of and for females, to the exclusion of other activity, like paid work, entrenching women again in economic dependency? If past is prologue, women better get out in front and lead the charge. Having the decisions made for us by others generally never leads to as good a result as we can craft for ourselves. It certainly hasn’t done much for us so far!!

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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