Why The Declining Birth Rate is Probably the New Normal

Even with family-friendly policies, other countries have seen declining birth rates since the Great Recession. It may be the new overall norm.

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Three empty bassinets at a hospital

On June 16, 2021, the New York Times published a story about the precipitously declining birth rate in the United States. The piece explains how delaying motherhood and pregnancy — once the provenance of wealthy, educated working women — has become the norm across the United States for women regardless of their income or social status. And it’s really no secret, or surprise, that the birth rate has declined as massively as it has as women wait longer to have children, have fewer kids, or decline to have kids at all.

Since 2007, per the publication, the birth rate has declined by 28 percent in the U.S., and births decreased in 2019 alone by 4 percent, and 8 percent during the pandemic year. (Birth rates have been declining similarly worldwide in developed nations, a phenomenon linked to the 2008 recession.)

The Birth Rate Decline is No Surprise

By all objective measures, the birth rate is declining. For writer Danielle Campoanar, that declining birth rate is “hardly surprising.” Pointing to abortion restrictions, the fact that the United States is the only developed nation with a rising maternal mortality rate, a problem stratified across race, that there’s no paid parental leave, that wage inequality is massive, and that moms are derailed in their careers, amid exorbitant child care costs, alongside a massive lack of a social safety net, it’s no wonder why women are putting off having children or deciding not to altogether.

The fact is that the birth rate has flattened because of these long-running crises. It’s not just the problems explicitly related to pregnancy and child care. The lack of affordable housing across the country and flattened wages, and the effects of the 2008 recession, as well as more recent ones, like an economic crisis brought on by a pandemic that has killed 600,000 Americans to date or the crushing weight of student debt — have all led to a lower birth rate. COVID didn’t help.

And it May Not Dramatically Reverse, Even with Family-Friendly Policies

What might be surprising is that even if the United States did the basic, bare minimum good offered by other developed nations (i.e. free or affordable child care, affordable health care for moms, paid parental leave, and more) the birth rate might not grow that much after implementing sound, reasonable policy anyway.

Studies have shown that Nordic countries — those that are often described for their bonkers-level of social safety net benefits from generous paid leave to affordable education to, well, a healthy middle-class way of life — do not have a dramatically higher birth rate than other countries even though they provide incredible benefits for families to make parenting super affordable.

Family-friendly policies like cash benefits, child care, and more have mixed results when it comes to dramatically increasing the birth rate in the countries they are offered in. As countries become wealthier and women have more professional opportunities, fertility rates simply tend to decline. Unmet fertility — which is the problem of people who would have babies if it weren’t so hard and expensive — is a problem, and it’s a problem in the United States, among other countries. But while these policies help, the research on whether they help long-term or if they only work when offered with a number of other work-life balance problems is ongoing. In other words, there is no silver bullet to help the fertility rate.

But those policies will give working people more freedom — freedom to choose whether or not, or when, they want to have kids, while also providing them a much greater quality of life, a major good in the United States, a country where children are the poorest group in the United States.

And while COVID-19 has exacerbated a trend of the drop in births, it was a trend that was long-happening and will continue after COVID is over, per experts. According to PBS, who spoke to two economists, Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney, the so-called baby bust has been well in the making. 300,000 fewer children will likely be born in 2022. In 2021 alone, millions of moms had to leave the workforce during COVID-19 because of their childrearing obligations. These realities do not a great environment for child-rearing make.

Research shows that more women are saying they were not interested in having children, according to the Guttmacher Institute. It’s possible that providing child care, or making birth safer, would change these numbers, but even if they didn’t, they should still be offered.

Providing Benefits for Families is Deeply Necessary, and Could Help

While all of this is pretty bad news, the reality is that it might not be news that’s changeable, even if parents are helped out. But, as Liz Breunig said in a recent column for the New York Times, whether or not the birth rate grows as a result of family-friendly policies is beyond the point. “Fulsome benefits for families are good regardless of whether they boost birthrates or sand down [birth age] delays, because the primary beneficiaries of these benefits are, after all, children and their worth is self-evident.”

The Declining Birth Rate Is Not All Bad News

Declining birth rates might not really be the crisis it’s suggested to be. A researcher speaking to PBS said that the decline in the birth rate has been in no small part because women have gained more control over their pregnancies. Teen pregnancies, for example, have plummeted, and access to contraception through insurance helps people have children when they want to. That’s good. But more than birth control and reproductive healthcare needs to be offered to make America a fair place where the middle class can thrive.

Giving working adults more freedom to choose whether or not they want to have children by providing them with financial stability incentives if they do so is good, even if people decide not to have children regardless; providing free and affordable child care is good for the same reason. Empowering individuals to have the financial footing to choose to have kids is necessary for a healthy economy, whether or not they do so.

And when children are the poorest group in the United States, targeting benefits to increase their quality of life — and the quality of life of American parents, who are, across all groups, delaying parenthood for financial stability — is something a functioning government should do, regardless of whether or not everyone starts making babies.

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