Having Children Helps — Not Hurts — Our Future

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway

Journalist Tina Brown opened the 2016 Women in the World Summit in New York City by lamenting the state of women in the United States. To make her case that the situation for women was perilous, she cited a curious data point: Birthrates for poor women in Texas had increased in recent years.

Brown is hardly alone in making this dubious connection between female welfare and birthrates. In January, 113 female attorneys signed a brief to the Supreme Court asserting that their economic opportunities had expanded thanks to having had abortions earlier in their careers and education.[1]

Men and women in the United States are routinely told that children are a threat to their economic opportunity. Is that true? And what are the implications for the country as a whole if they come to believe that?

We may find out. For the past 10 years, America’s fertility rate has been in decline. The fertility rate refers to the average number of children that the average woman has over her lifetime. It first dipped below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 in the early 1970s and has largely remained there since. The replacement rate is the rate needed to maintain the population of a country without immigration. A declining rate poses risks to the economy, the military, entitlement programs, the growth of mediating institutions such as houses of worship, and community health.

As Professors Walter R. Schumm and Jason S. Carroll have shown, falling fertility rates increase the “dependency ratio,” or the number of citizens receiving entitlements relative to the number of workers.[2] This is likely to mean increased government spending on health care and increased taxes on those remaining in the workforce.

Declining fertility rates lead to worker shortages, and that can result in increased investment in pension funds and a resulting decrease in productive investments, leading to lower rates of economic growth. Further, decreased fertility reduces the number of extended family members that make up the warp and woof of family support systems.

“Previous generations feared a population explosion,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “But for today’s global economy, the problem is just the opposite. Falling fertility rates and aging workforces will plague the developed world.”[3]

Economic hardship is one cause of the falling fertility rate. One recent massive study concluded that living through a recession means that some women will never have children, even after economic prospects rise. Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, health economists at Princeton University, report that more than 150,000 women who were in their early 20s in 2008 will forgo having any children in their lifetimes as a result of that economic disruption.[4]

Additionally, Millennials, more than any previous American generation, are delaying marriage. In fact, they are delaying most of the steps associated with adulthood, from moving out of their childhood home to getting a full-time job and having children.[5] Millennials are less likely to report wanting to get married and face economic barriers to achieving that goal. Millennial women who seek marriage say that having a spouse with a steady job is of great importance, but labor force participation rates and wages have fallen for younger men in recent decades, making it harder for men to appear marriageable.

It is not surprising, then, that Millennial women are having fewer children. In fact, they are having children at the slowest pace of any generation in U.S. history, declining more than 15 percent in five years, according to one study by the Urban Institute.[6]

That is a shame, because economic mobility across generations is tied more to healthy families than to any policy or economic program. Men and women who marry and raise children together have better economic, psychological, and health outcomes than their peers who do not do so. In the study For Richer, for Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America, for example, family life scholars W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman report that men and women enjoy substantially higher family incomes, compared to their peers, when they marry.[7]

Declining fertility is not good for American economic opportunity. It also comes at a more personal cost to many women. Around 40 percent of U.S. women approaching the end of their fertility report having had fewer children than they wished, according to the General Social Survey.[8] The ramifications of declining fertility are so broad and deep that individuals at all levels of society may soon come to wish that we had more children.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a Senior Editor at The Federalist.

Next Up in the Culture Section:

Single-Parent Households


  1. Brief of Amici Curiae by Janice MacAvoy, Janie Schulman, et al., Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole (Sup. Ct.) (No. 15–274),
    http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Janice-Macavoy-Paul-Weiss.pdf (accessed May 12, 2016).
  2. Walter R. Schumm and Jason S. Carroll, “The Fall of Fertility: How Redefining Marriage Will Further Declining Birthrates in the United States,” Witherspoon Institute, Public Discourse, April 22, 2015, http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/04/14885 (accessed May 12, 2016).
  3. “Demographic Destiny 2050,” The Wall Street Journal, http://graphics.wsj.com/2050-demographic-destiny
    (accessed May 12, 2016).
  4. Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of Unemployment on Fertility,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 111, No 41 (October 14, 2014), pp. 14735–14739,
    http://www.pnas.org/content/111/41/14734.full.pdf (accessed April 19, 2016).
  5. Richard Fry, A Rising Share of Young Adults Live in Their Parents’ Home, Pew Research Center, August 1, 2013,
    http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/01/a-rising-share-of-young-adults-live-in-their-parents-home (accessed June 21, 2016); Nan Marie Astone, Steven Martin, and H. Elizabeth Peters, “Millennial Childbearing and the Recession,” Urban Institute, Center for Labor, Human Resources, and Population Brief, April 28, 2015, http://www.urban.org/research/publication/millennial-childbearing-and-recession (accessed June 21, 2016); Pew Research Center, The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, February 2014,
    http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college (accessed June 21, 2016).
  6. Nan Marie Astone, Steven Martin, and H. Elizabeth Peters, “Millennial Childbearing and the Recession,” Urban Institute Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population Brief, April 2015,
    http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/alfresco/publication-pdfs/2000203-Millennial-Childbearing-and-the-Recession.pdf (accessed April 19, 2016).
  7. Robert I. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox, For Richer, for Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America, American Enterprise Institute, Institute for Family Studies, 2014,
    https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/IFS-ForRicherForPoorer-Final_Web.pdf (accessed April 19, 2016).
  8. Gretchen Livingston, “Birth Rates Lag in Europe and the U.S., But the Desire for Kids Does Not,” Pew Research Center, April 11, 2014, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/11/birth-rates-lag-in-europe-and-the-u-s-but-the-desire-for-kids-does-not (accessed June 6, 2016).

© 2016 by The Heritage Foundation. All Rights Reserved.




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