September 19, 2016

Americans are having fewer babies

The US fertility rate is nearly half of what is was at the peak of the baby boom in the 1950s. Federal data shows that the first quarter of 2016 brought 59.8 babies for every 1,000 women, ages 15 to 44, the lowest point on record.

The data shows that US women who choose to reproduce keep delaying motherhood. In the 1960s, the average age a woman had her first child was 21, in 2000 it was 24.9, and today it is 26.3.

Reasons for this include the availability of birth control in the 1960s, more women finishing school and launching their careers before starting a family, and some women deciding not to have a family at all.

However, a huge driver of America’s increasingly late parenthood is that many women cannot afford to have a baby. Student debt and bleak job prospects make working towards stability an uphill battle. According to a Pew Research Center Survey in 2014, 40% of American women aged 40 to 55 say they have fewer children than they would like.

Furthermore, having a child is becoming increasingly more expensive. Childcare costs now consume at least 30% of a minimum-wage worker’s salary and the US does not guarantee paid parental leave for workers.

Parental leave and childcare is one of the key policies for both Presidential candidates in the upcoming election. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has outlined a program for universal pre-kindergarten. Clinton has proposed to cap childcare costs at 10% of household income and to introduce 12 weeks of paid family leave. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has proposed making childcare tax deductible. He has also said his plan would provide six weeks of maternity leave to any mother with a newborn child whose employer does not provide it. This would not apply to fathers, though.

Massimiliano Bratti, who has written about fertility postponement and labor market outcomes for the IZA World of Labor, suggests that another reason women postpone having children is that there is a wage penalty associated with mothers. Most research finds that postponing the first birth raises a mother’s labor force participation and wages but may have negative effects on overall fertility. He suggests that “countries may want to lessen this tradeoff by investing in family-friendly policies. Examples include the provision of public childcare services, incentives to private firms to provide childcare services, and promotion of paternal leave policies to improve the gender balance in childrearing.”

Related articles:
Fertility postponement and labor market outcomes by Massimiliano Bratti
Can government policies reverse undesirable declines in fertility? by Elizabeth Brainerd
Female education and its impact on fertility by Jungho Kim

Read more analysis of childcare policy and maternal employment