One of the biggest stories Wednesday is the news of the U.S. birth rate dropping to a 32-year low. But it’s important to remember why more American women are forgoing having children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. birth rate hasn’t been this low since 1986. According to CDC data, the national birth rate in 2018 dropped again from the previous year for the fourth consecutive time. The CDC also found that women in their thirties had a higher birth rate than women in their twenties. The only other year that happened was 2017, and in 2018, the gap between those two groups of women was even higher.
An NPR article on the low birth rate included quotes from academics scratching their heads about why the birth rate isn’t higher, given that surface-level data suggests that the American economy is doing well. As Grit Post’s editorial board has previously written, low unemployment numbers are not a great indicator of the overall health and stability of the working class.
“It’s a national problem,” says Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California.
“The birthrate is a barometer of despair,” Myers says in response to the CDC data. Explaining that idea, he says young people won’t make plans to have babies unless they’re optimistic about the future.
“At first, we thought it was the recession,” Myers says of the recent downturn in births. But after a slight rise in 2012, the rate took another nosedive. He adds that by nearly all economic standards — except for high housing costs — birthrates should now be rising.
David Frum, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, openly asked how America can “restore the desire to bear children” in response to news about the fertility rate.
How do we restore the desire to bear children? Policing and punishing does not seem a very plausible answer.
— David Frum (@davidfrum) May 15, 2019
Media Matters editor-at-large Parker Molloy, along with Democratic Socialists of America organizer Annie Shields both tweeted an abundance of data at Frum showing just how expensive it is for American women to have children.
One of the headlines Malloy tweeted at Frum was from The Economist, which reported in 2018 on how the delivery of royal baby Lindo Wing — fifth in line to the British throne — cost roughly $2,000 less than the average cost of delivering a baby in the U.S. Both tweeted about the incredibly high cost of raising a baby from birth to age 18, which, according to USA Today, comes out to an average of $233,610. Given that around 20% of millennials in debt expect to die before paying it off, and that the cost of child care in America is roughly equal to rent, it’s no wonder fewer women today are opting to have children.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of a higher birth rate is the ongoing student debt crisis. With student debt at $1.5 trillion and rising, the average graduate having nearly $29,000 in debt before even securing a job, and student debt still impacting millions of elderly Americans to the point where even Social Security checks are being garnished by debt servicers, the additional cost of raising a child seems insurmountable when coupled with a mountain of debt.
If an American woman does give birth, she not likely to receive paid time off to care for her new child. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is still the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for new mothers. And even though the unemployment rate is at its lowest point in decades, and even though corporate profits continue to stay at an all-time high, workers’ share of those profits is still lower today than it was even during the Great Recession. Why would anyone want to have a baby when they have to immediately return to their low-paying job, making a poverty wage that now has to feed an additional mouth?
It’s not like this is a widespread global problem with no solution. Multiple countries around the world offer paid maternity leave (and some even offer paid leave to new fathers). In 14 European countries, new mothers get a year or more of paid leave. 11 others — including America’s northern neighbor, Canada — offer at least six months of paid leave. Despite 2016 Pew Research data finding that 82% of Americans support paid leave for new mothers, and 69% for new fathers, Congress has yet to pass any paid leave legislation.
There’s no need for any head-scratching about how to raise the American birth rate. 28 countries across Europe have increased their birth rate simply by providing a basic safety net for parents, along with other social programs like universal healthcare and affordable higher education. If American politicians want American women to have more babies, they could start by exchanging our absurd levels of corporate welfare and handouts to the super-rich for paid family leave, tuition-free college, and universal healthcare. They could stop the attack on the working class.