How Big Is the Fertility Gap in America?

Women in Every Rich Country Have Fewer Children Than They Desire: How Does the US Stack Up?

I’ve written elsewhere about fertility policy in the United States and abroad. In that article, I noted that, throughout the developed world, women have fewer children than they say they would have liked to have, as shown in the graph below.

As you can see, the U.S.’ fertility deficit is actually on the low end. Yes, American women have fewer kids than they might want on average, but we’re not nearly as awful as Germany, the Netherlands, or France.

But there’s another way to look at the fertility shortfall: we can look at the history of U.S. fertility desires! We have surveys asking about desired or intended fertility going back to 1960 at least, and we can line’em all up and see what the trend is. The graph below shows the individual datapoints I’m using to build a consistent time series of desired fertility. I’m sure there are sources I’m missing, and I’m sure somebody will quibble with using one or another of these, but by and large I think they’re all fairly comparable, except for the data from the Current Population Survey, to which I’ve applied a flat level-increase adjustment to address what seems like a fairly clear and consistent shortfall (CPS also understates total births); I show my adjusted CPS numbers here.

As you can see, these estimates mostly seem to jive with each other. So, to get one guesstimate to use as a single time series, I extrapolate between missing values and average’em all together. This won’t have the exactitude of these individual surveys, but it should help us get a ballpark of what kind of fertility ambitions American women have had since 1960.

As you can see, womens’ fertility desires have fallen over time, consistent with what we would expect given declining infant and child mortality, and the gradual cultural shift towards higher investments per child alongside fewer children, a shift which virtually all knowledge-intensive economies must and do make (though how low their desires can or should go is a different question).

Okay, cool. So that’s the fertility desires of the whole population. Well… how does that compare to fertility?

Because I’m using a variety of datasets harmonized together, I can’t build a time series of, say, 45-year-old completed fertility versus expressed ideal at age 45. That would be very cool, but is beyond the reach of the data I have at hand right now.

But we can at least get a guesstimate of fertility-accomplishment. We can graph desired fertility against completed fertility, and against total fertility.

What we can see is that, if you think comparing total fertility to intended fertility is most appropriate, then American woman have had below-intentions fertility since the early 1960s. If you think comparing to completed fertility is more fitting, then fertility intentions have been undershot since the 1980s. Personally, I think the Total Fertility Rate is a better indicator, but we’ll keep looking at both. Also, I’m going to assume that intended fertility continued to drift slowly downwards after 2012, to help us extend our time series a bit.

As you can see, the trends are quite different given the lag displayed by completed fertility. But both indicators agree since 1990 or so on the general scale of the gap: about 0.3 to 0.6 kids. It may be getting slightly smaller with time, but in recent years I would actually suggest that an assessment of “no change” is probably fair.

Now, this is a different metric than the one I showed above, which was completed fertility for women at the end of their reproductive years vs. those womens’ fertility desires. By including many younger women, this data may be overstating the gap.

But no matter how you cut this pie, the U.S. fertility shortfall (1) exists, (2) is substantial, (3) shows no sign of rapid shrinkage. When we talk about the politics of fertility in the United States, then, we really, really ought to keep in mind that unobtained childbearing is a large-scale social problem to be considered alongside of unwanted childbearing.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.