Looking at the puzzle of falling US birth rates

By James Pethokoukis

It’s certainly tempting to explain this chart by pointing to the Great Recession/Global Financial Crisis:

But that answer, while necessary given the obvious timing, is not complete, according to “The Puzzle of Falling US Birth Rates Since the Great Recession” by Melissa Schettini Kearney, Phillip B. Levine, and Luke W. Pardue. “The Great Recession contributed to the decline in the early part of this period, but we are unable to identify any other economic, policy, or social factor that has changed since 2007 that is responsible for much of the decline beyond that,” the researchers conclude.

One possible explanation: “shifting priorities,” a phrase that “encompasses preferences for having children, life aspirations, and the nature of parenting, among other things.” It’s a broad explanation, but one particular aspect the researchers highlight is how young adults view the act of parenting versus their parents and grandparents. From the paper (bold by me):

Parenting has become more resource- and time-intensive, both in the United States, as well as in many other high-income countries (Bianchi 2011; Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg 2013; Doepke and Zilibotti 2019). Changing norms regarding the intensity of parenting might change people’s views toward how many children to have or whether to have them at all. Such changes are particularly relevant in an era where parents, including mothers, work longer hours outside the home, clashing with career aspirations or a desire for more leisure time. This idea incorporates choice in the context of a quality/quantity trade-off, but it also emphasizes external determinants or expectations of what is generally expected or required of parents.

It is unlikely that career aspirations or parenting norms changed exactly in or around 2007. Note, though, that women who grew up in the 1990s were the daughters of the 1970s generation and women who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s were daughters of the 1950s and 1960s generation. It seems plausible that these more recent cohorts of women were likely to be raised with stronger expectations of having life pursuits outside their roles as wives and mothers. It also seems likely that the cohorts of young adults who grew up primarily in the 1990s or later — and reached prime childbearing years around and post 2007 — experienced more intensive parenting from their own parents than those who grew up primarily in the 1970s and 1980s. They would have a different idea about what parenting involves. We speculate that these differences in formed aspirations and childhood experiences could potentially explain why more recent cohorts of young women are having fewer children than previous cohorts.

But so what? Why should a declining birth rate matter to us? Preferences change. It is what it is. The researchers explore several reasons why we should care about declining birth rates: (a) a negative impact on productivity, (b) instability in financing of old-age programs, and (c) the potential for environmental gains by reducing human impact. And what if you want to increase birth rates? Well, it’s not a simple or inexpensive proposition:

“Pronatalist” policies generally make it easier or more affordable for families to have children. These include steps like subsidized childcare, parental leave policies, and child allowances or tax credits. Many countries are contemplating or implementing pronatalist policies: the United Nations reports that the number of countries with a policy goal of increasing fertility has risen from 19 to 55 between 1986 and 2015 (Sobotka et al. 2019).

The evidence about pronatalist policies that have been implemented and evaluated in the United States and in other high-income countries suggests that these types of policies lead to modest increases in birth rates in the short-term, but are unlikely to lead to sustained higher birth rates (Brainerd 2014; Lopoo et al. 2018; Sobotka, et al. 2019). Stone (2020a) concluded that a pro-natalist policy would cost $200,000 or more per additional baby born; using such policies to close the gap between current fertility in the United States and the replacement level of fertility would cost somewhere between $250 billion and $1 trillion in new spending per year — a daunting sum.

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