This Is Why Americans Are Having Fewer Children
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In September of 2019, the PRB (Population Reference Bureau) announced that fertility in the United States was at it lowest level in recorded history. For the last 40 years, the fertility rate in the United States has hovered around two or just below it (two being an important benchmark as it is the level needed for a country’s population to remain stable). But in 2019, the average number of births per woman was 1.7. The continued decline of the fertility rate will have huge ramifications on the demographics and economics of the U.S.
Why are Americans choosing to have fewer children? For many, the obvious answer lies in the effects that rampant capitalism has had on our society.
If the measure of success for a species is population growth, then we, homo sapiens, are without a doubt the most successful species in Earth’s history. And it's remarkable how fast we have grown in just the last few hundred years. In 1800, the world population was around 1 billion — it has since exploded to 7.7 billion in 2021. Indeed, the concern among policy experts and economists has traditionally been focused on overpopulation.
The conversation around declining fertility rate has shifted somewhat significantly in recent years. The fertility rate across the globe has been dropping considerably in the last 70 years, and it hasn't been driven exclusively by developed countries either. The fertility rate in two of the world’s most populous nations — India and China — has decreased massively, showing that these population trends are also prevalent in developing nations.
The U.S. is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. One would imagine that of all the countries a couple would like to have the opportunity to raise a child, the U.S. would be one of the most attractive options. And yet the data shows that Americans are choosing to have fewer children. The data shows a downward trend in fertility rates over the last several decades up until 2015 — it actually excludes the most recent data points, which show a sharp tick lower to 1.7 in 2019, a significant drop from 1.87 in 2015.
Some think Americans are making this choice because of the unfettered rise of capitalism and its impacts on our society. Capitalism in 21st-century America has led to historic inequality, enormous healthcare costs and a culture that values work and productivity over personal leisure.
The economic system in which we operate has created the highest levels of inequality that we have seen for generations. In 2018, the bottom 50% of Americans owned just 1% of the nation’s wealth, down from 3% in 1989. Joblessness and stagnating real wages have led many people in poorer communities to question if they can afford to have children. The costs of parenthood have risen so much that many people feel like they woudn’t be able to support several children financially. Many would rather devote their resources to one child so that they can give him or her the best opportunity to succeed in life.
However, it is not just the cost of raising a child that's so prohibitive, but also the cost of actually giving birth. The heavily privatized healthcare system in the U.S. has made us one of the most expensive places in the world to give birth. And it disproportionately impacts the poorest members of our society. According to a study in 2013, the average cost for an “uncomplicated” birth was $32,093. The costs rise significantly if there are complications. Insurance, if you have it, can cover a lot of these costs, but it still leaves families with thousands of dollars in hospital bills.
A lack of work-life balance
The capitalist society has also contributed to a culture of "workism," which has certainly impacted people’s desire to have children. In a working environment that discourages leisure time and vacation, it is no wonder that fewer people are ending up married. And even for those couples that have managed to balance a work and dating life, the prospect of having a child is often viewed through the lens of the negative impact that it would have on their careers, particularly for women.
Finally, it would be irresponsible to not mention capitalism’s impact on the planet and the environment. Climate change has been caused by humans’ greed and relentless pursuit of profit over anything else. In our capitalist society, the interests of large oil and gas companies have been given preference over the interests of the millions of Americans who warn about the damage we are doing to the planet. This has caused some adults to feel it is irresponsible and immoral to bear a child in the world that we as humans are actually destroying.
In the 1960s, the typical nuclear family in America contained a working husband, a stay-at-home mom and three or four children. Today, that typical family is rapidly shrinking. Many will argue, quite justifiably, that it points to a vast improvement in women’s equality and freedom to choose their own destiny and career path. While this is certainly true, it masks many of the economic factors that are dissuading women from having children.
The decline in the fertility rate is certainly not a predictor of guaranteed economic disaster, but with a rapidly aging population and fewer young workers to support them, it is a challenge that will be hard to overcome.