This article, We’re having fewer babies. Could that kill the economy? popped up in my FB feed through The Olympian, apparently originally in the The Washington Post. It seems the US birthrate has been dropping a little every year, and the provisional 2016 population data released by the CDC showed the number of births had fallen 1 percent from the previous year, which brought the general fertility rate to 62 births per 1,000 women (15-44 years of age).
It seems this matters because a country’s birthrate is one of the most important measures of demographic health. It’s a number that needs to be within a specific range that will keep the population stable (neither growing or shrinking), a range known as the “replacement level.” If the birthrate is higher or lower than this sweet spot, there are problems.
Too high of a birthrate, and a country’s resources will be strained– they won’t have enough clean water, food, shelter, or social service programs to serve all their citizens/ residents (India is cited as an example, with the article noting that although their fertility rate has fallen over the last few decades, it still remains high).
Too low of a birthrate presents other dangers: not enough tax revenue to keep the economy stable (an even more pressing concern in light of current US actions re immigration), as well as the danger of being unable to replace an aging workforce. According to the article, countries which have typically faced low birthrates have implemented pro-family policies in an attempt to encourage couples to have children.
It seems the trend is driven by a decline in birthrates for teens and 20-somethings– apparently the birthrate for older women (in their 30s and 40s) increased, but not enough to make up for the drop in teens and 20-somethings, and now experts are wondering if this is a temporary problem that will soon level off, or the makings of a national emergency.
Personally, I think it’s option B. Like Donna Strobino, the professor of population, family and reproductive health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health quoted in the article, I agree that the fall in birthrates in teens is desirable and good– nothing to complain about. I disagree with her assessment that the highest birthrates now falling among women 25 to 34 years of age are a result of women becoming more educated and mature. Personally, I think it’s family-unfriendly policies.
Bear with me.
See, maturity is relative. What people mean by “maturity” changes according to their culture and values. In Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas noted that socioeconomic status played a large role in determining when someone became an “adulthood.” For women of lower socioeconomic status/ fewer opportunities, motherhood was the litmus test. For women of higher socioeconomic status/ more opportunities, it was things like graduating college/ first job/ first apartment.
Growing up mormon (and middle class), I was simultaneously taught to value and seek after an education, but also that my duty to god and the church was family above all– even at the sacrifice of an education and/ or career. So when I eschewed the opportunity to continue college at the age of 21 to get married, that (within my specific cultural boundaries/ values) was an acceptable and “mature” decision.
In the early years of marriage, when I attended church services and activities with my young infant, I was treated as a peer– as an adult. I never felt ostracized or stupid or “less than,” for my decision. If anything, I felt vaguely like an “outsider” because I was on the fence about having a second child, even as I was constantly questioned about when we would be having our next while I was still nursing the first.
What’s been interesting to me over the last 15 years is the complete juxtaposition of my experience in religious spaces and secular spaces as a young mother– at church, as noted, I was treated with respect, as a mature individual who, by dint of marriage and motherhood, had crossed the threshold from childhood to adulthood.
But in non-mormon and secular circles, I’ve had an entirely different and much less comfortable experience. When my son was a toddler in the early 00’s and I attempted to join local secular playdate groups, I was discomfited to find I was the youngest mom (and wife) present, by anywhere from 5-10 years. When I started cloth diapering him and joined online “granola mom” forums to trade tips, toys, and diapers, I quickly learned to obscure my age– the other moms were in their late 20s at the youngest, but more often mid-30s to early 40s; many of them first-time moms like myself, just a decade or more older.
When I was 27, I enrolled at the local community college as a late-start student. They had a free daycare program, and every hour my son (then 5) attended was half a family education credit for me. It was like pre-school that I not only didn’t have to pay for, I actually got college credits for! How great, right? The only mild awkwardness was that when I waited in the drop-off or pick-up line, the other mothers ranged from 17-20 in age. Its funny, because you would think the commonality of parenthood would erase all other differences, but it doesn’t, really– even if you want it to. We would make assumptions about each others’ situations which would lead to stilted, limping conversations– for instance, they would assume I was single and there was no dad in the picture; and I would assume they knew who the father of their baby was, or was on speaking terms with him. There, at least, I was recognized as a mother, though. Not so much on campus. In my campus classes, without a baby on my hip, people assumed I was just another late-start student. There were plenty of people in their mid-20’s attending the community college, and most people assumed I was a few years younger than I was. In one sense this was freeing; in another insulting.
People say the most appalling, presumptive things about young parents when they think there are no young parents around. And when they learn you are (or were) a young parent, oftentimes their shock and surprise negates any circumspection– most made it clear they assumed I had been a teenage mom forced into a shotgun marriage, and were (somewhat insultingly) surprised when I gently corrected them. That’s the secular cultural narrative of young mothers– lack of agency, lack of education, and a series of compounding mistakes.
Later, when I enrolled at Evergreen for my undergrad, I ran into many of the same assumptions again. Not from everyone, no– but from enough people that something occurred almost every time I went on campus.
I had a professor call me privileged because I informed her I was leaving class early because my son missed his bus home and texted me asking for a ride.
I had a professor insist that the increasing birthrate was a sign of better education and increasing maturity in women, and uncategorically state that any woman who had a child before the age of 30 was ruining her life– with myself and a 23 year old pregnant student in her class.
I had a classmate, upon meeting my then-11-yr old son, ask if I was ‘like 17’ when I had him.
I had a classmate insist that having a child in your early 20’s would “ruin your life,” because it would “stop you from ever being able to go on vacation or anything,” which was news to me. She argued it was preferable to get a dog, as dogs are less care-intensive, and I had to laugh– at least when my son was an infant and toddler (and I’m pretty sure as of this writing), nearly all public spaces accommodate human babies (often at reduced fares), which is not the case with animals. My son, I’ve been able to take on flights and long drives, in restaurants and to amusement parks, to museums and fairs and shopping and other sundry activities. My dogs? Yeah, not so much. I pretty much always have to figure out an animal sitter for them, or pay extra to bring them along.
The thing is, becoming a mother (ie, parent) in one’s 20s isn’t the problem here– it doesn’t indicate less or more maturity or education. What it indicates is that women don’t have the support structures that men have had for centuries.
Think about it: Men, for centuries, have been fathering children in their 20s and then popping off to school and/ or work to grow their careers, while the children stay with the mothers. Perhaps the father is married to the women and involved as parent; perhaps he just impregnated her and popped off unconcerned. Regardless, the weight of it didn’t fall to him– managing the pregnancy, the health of self/ baby, preparations for the new life, feeding and bathing and diapering– so he was free to focus on school and career.
And now women can focus on school and careers, and so they do– of course they do! Who wouldn’t? I mean, it’s fucking amazing! I’m not knocking education or careers at all, don’t get me wrong.
I’m just saying, for centuries, it wasn’t an “either/ or” choice for men. It wasn’t, “Look, dude, you can either get your education and build an amazing career or be a dad. One or the other. You can’t have it all. You want both, you gotta go education first, then focus on your career, then get married, then get a place, and then– maaaaybe— by your mid-30’s you’ll be set to start with the whole procreation thing. But you gotta give up your career once you start with the babies, for real, because childcare costs are a bitch.”
No, for centuries (and, generally speaking, even today), men can pretty much jump into it, woman willing– regardless of where he is on the education/ career/ income spectrum– and it’s still (generally speaking) socially acceptable for men to pick and choose how involved or un-involved of a parent they’ll be. A dad is still gushingly praised as “such a good dad,” and, “so involved!” for doing run-of-the-mill parenting duties like changing a diaper or handling a feeding or burping a baby. It’s like, uh, wow, being a little condescending to the poor guy, aren’tcha? Cause that’s just … being a parent, right there. Yep. Basic parenting. Clothing, feeding, caring for child. Basic.
So why are women putting off having children? Because, as a society, we’re not supportive of families. I’m not pointing the finger at men here, btw– this impacts families as a whole, fathers and mothers. I’m pointing out that, historically, men benefited from the childcare setup that allowed them freedom of movement and expected women (and their extended families of single female relatives– which is another aspect of historical childcare no longer accessible to most modern families) to handle the childcare, and when as a society, we provided women access to the same freedom of movement available to men (suffrage, education, employment), we didn’t account for childcare.
So now women, like men, can go to college. Women, like men, can work. Women, like men, can run companies. Women, like men, can vote. Women, like men, can influence public policy and become political leaders. Women, like men, have the right to leave relationships that aren’t working for them. Women, like men, can drive, own bank accounts, and apply for/ be approved for credits, loans, and mortgages without needing a spouse– and all this is fucking great! Talk about progress! Yes! Absolutely! Keep it coming!
But, unlike men, women cannot count on the presence– with nearly 100 percent certainty– on a free, round-the-clock childcare provider, should they choose to have a child. It doesn’t matter if they’re 22, 32, or 42. It doesn’t matter if they’re single or married. It doesn’t matter if they’re poor or rich.
Women can’t rely on someone else handling that shit. Men, overwhelmingly, can.
So yeah, obviously women are going to delay having children, because there’s nowhere else to spread the load. Despite the cries of MRAers, no-one wants men to lose their access to education and career growth– this isn’t a situation of, “Well, you got a free ride on childcare for 1,000 years, so we get the next 1,000 years. Time to get repressed, boys!”
No, this is a situation that calls for truly family-friendly policies that will benefit the entire family, like:
- Accessible nationalized childcare for the first 2 children (reduced cost for more than 2);
- Expanding WIC and lengthening the eligibility range (instead of pregnancy to 1 year, why not pregnancy through first 5?– but only for the first 2 children)
- Baby boxes (for the first 2 children)
- Free nationalized college and increased focus on non-college career training
- Re-considering the child tax credit (instead of $1,000 per child, it should be something like $2,500 for 1st child, $1,500 for 2nd kid, and $150 or even $0 for every child thereafter– a formula that specifically rewards/ encourages replacement level birthrates).
I’m certain that policies such as these would raise the birthrate, benefit the entire family, and boost the economy. Policies like these would benefit both genders, because the ability to access nationalized daycare and low-cost early-life childcare necessities would give men a stronger position at the custody bargaining table– historically, men’s over-reliance on women as childcare providers have meant they’ve been forced to choose between ceding custody (childcare) or figuring out how to balance the demands of childcare and career. With a nationalized childcare program, that gender imbalance would be addressed: Men would have the freedom to choose to retain/ fight for custody of their children if they believed their exes were poor parents, knowing they had access to accessible childcare and low-cost care provisions; just as women would gain the previously-unaccessed freedom to pursue educations and careers alongside parenthood.
Affordable, accessible, nationalized childcare: Will bring jobs and increase overall education opportunities.
- Building/ setting up childcare centers (construction jobs)
- Training and certifying childcare providers (education and certification jobs)
- Hiring and vetting said providers (HR and background certification jobs)
- Childcare provider positions
- Parents now free to pursue employment (in the public or private sector) and/ or education, without concern for costs of childcare.
The key, of course, is paying an income high enough to bring in people who are skilled and trustworthy, which (upon being paid) would be circulated back into the economy through their purchases.
Starting a Baby box program, expanding WIC, and lengthening the child eligibility age: Will create federal, management, production, supply, shipping, and retail jobs, and increase overall education opportunities.
- Creating a baby box program would require an entirely new department necessitating federal employees, as well as private/ retail contracts.
- Expanding the WIC program and child eligibility age will require more positions to be filled by federal employees, as well as increased private/ retail contracts.
- The reduced costs on individual families for their first two children will combine with the nationalized childcare to incentivize focusing on education and/ or career growth, which in turn will allow families to spend their increased incomes and grow the economy.
Nationalized college: A perk for everyone. Nationalizing college education costs would take a huge student debt weight off young parents and families, and ease concerns about how to pay for their children’s tuition when they haven’t even paid off their own. It would reduce the pressure of college and allow people to pursue it at their own pace, when it’s most beneficial to them and their career– some 18 year olds just aren’t cut out for college, and some students get a lot more from higher education after they’ve spent a few years in the workforce.
If the USA had a nationalized college program/ vocational career training, nationalized daycare, and an extended WIC program that reduced the initial costs of childrearing, imagine how different the years right after high school might look: Students graduate from high school, and the brightest and most academically driven continue straight on to college. They could marry and start families as they study, or right after graduation, without fear of the educational, financial, and career repercussions. By the time they’re in their 40s, their kids are graduating, and the parents are young and healthy and hale enough to enjoy their retirement– and their grandkids, when they come.
Those who aren’t academically driven — the middle/ low-end range of the class, who futzed around and paid little attention– don’t have to be herded into college before they’re ready– they can pursue vocational training and the usual related employments. If they happen to get married and/ or have kids, it’s not a life-ruining choice– they can still build a career, even go back to college and acquire a degree if they want.
All these policies together would mean that, as a culture, we could lose this ridiculous insistence we currently have on trying to get 6th graders to decide on their future degree/ career path. Sixth graders! Those kids are 11 years old! They’re trying to get 11 year olds to think about their college goals! It was bad enough in 1994, when they were telling us freshmen in high school to decide what our college goals were– now it’s 6th graders! Dude, I don’t think I ever landed on a ‘college degree path,’ and I have a BA!
Best case scenario, the restaurant, retail, and domestic labor sectors will be unionized/ brought up to a living wage– but even if they aren’t, just providing access to nationalized childcare, reducing early-years child-rearing costs, increasing the child-care tax credit, and providing no-string-attached nationalized higher education would be life-changing to thousands of lower-income people in their 20s across the USA. An entire generation would suddenly find opportunities accessible to them which were previously undreamed of, and the so-called American Dream once again a reality.
Finally, re-considering the child tax credit: Right now it’s a paltry $1,000, and that’s for every kid– essentially, the way it’s set up is that it doesn’t really incentivize the average person who’s considering parenthood (it’s like a nonissue when considering child #1, a conversation that goes something like, “Well, we’d get a child tax credit!” “Ha, right. What, like $1,000 a year? We could save that by not having a kid.”), but it’s great for, like, mormons or Catholics or those Quiverfull cult people– the ones who have so many kids they just set the oldest to watching the youngest for their free in-home childcare while the mom manages all the householdy shit.
Those types of families can get $4,000- $15,000 in annual tax credits (think I’m kidding? The Duggars, at one point, had 15 kids born between 11/4/1992 and 12/10/2009– which means for at least one tax year, they could claim 15 dependant kids under the age of 17, ie $15,000 in child tax credits. FUCKING HANDY, THAT.). I mean, there is a tipping point where the $1,000 child tax credit starts being worth it, but you gotta be willing to have a shit-ton of kids to get there, and you gotta embrace the lifestyle (a single-income family/ breadwinner, usually the dad, and a full-time stay at home parent, most likely the mom) to get to that point.
I’m just saying, instead of the current system– which does not incentivize replacement-level birthrates, but does reward crazy-cultish-level birthrates–we should revamp the whole child-tax credit structure to something like $2,500 or $5,000 per first kid, and half that for kid #2, and then like may a hundred or so (or nothing!) for kids 3 and 4, and then definitely, absolutely, no child tax credits for more than 4 kids. And, like nationalized daycare should be freely accessible to the first two children registered in a family, but subsidized by in part by (affordable) fees for any subsequent kids registered. Same for WIC and the baby boxes– these are all programs that should be freely and generously provided to the first two children born, but low (affordable) fees should be charged for subsequent children.
Now, obviously, families are different– single parents, married parents, divorce, remarriage, single parents, blended families. So some of the obvious questions are:
- Would these benefits be available to teen parents?
- Would they be available to single parents (single moms)?
- What if Jane has two kids with Fred, and they break-up, and she marries (childless) Joe and has two kids? Do those kids get the benefit under Joe, or lose the benefit because Jane had kids with Fred?
- What if Jane has a kid with Fred and she breaks up with him and married Joe, who had a kid with Susan, and then Joe and Jane have a kid together– does their child together get the benefit, or lose it because it has two older siblings?
These would (obviously) be questions up for policy debate, but my personal stance is:
- Would these benefits be available to teen parents? The benefits should kick in at 18, no earlier.
- Would they be available to single parents (single moms)? Yes, all parents, regardless of marital status, gender, or sexual orientation.
- What if Jane has two kids with Fred, and they break-up, and she marries (childless) Joe and has two kids? Do those kids get the benefit under Joe, or lose the benefit because Jane had kids with Fred? The younger two get the nationalized childcare, WIC, and baby box benefits through Joe, but the child tax credit will be determined based on how custody of Jane and Fred’s kids are split (ie, if the oldest two spend most of the year living with Jane and Joe, and they claim them as dependents on their taxes, they cannot claim the younger two for the higher child tax credit. But if the older two spend most of the year living with Fred, and are claimed as dependents on his taxes, then Jane and Joe can claim the younger two for the higher child tax credit on their taxes).
- What if Jane has a kid with Fred and she breaks up with him and married Joe, who had a kid with Susan, and then Joe and Jane have a kid together– does their child together get the benefit, or lose it because it has two older siblings? Similar to above situation– the youngest child is the first of Joe+Jane, and second to both Joe and Jane, which makes it eligible for the nationalized daycare, WIC, and baby box, as well as the 2nd child tax credit. The first child tax credit will be determined according to who claims custody of the older kids and lists them as dependants on their taxes. (If Fred and Susan, respectively, claim primary custody/ dependency of the older two, then Jane and Joe could claim their offspring as a 1st child tax credit).
I do think it’s important to nudge parents toward a replacement level birthrate, with policies that encourage, reward, and ease the path for 1st and 2nd-time parents, but are less inclusive toward 3rd+ parents. Not punishing or outright outlawing, because we saw what happened in China– but more like, “Eh, sure. You can have that 3rd kid … but heads up, all those perks like free daycare and a sweet baby box and fat child tax credit aren’t gonna be there this time around. The kid is your reward. Enjoy.”
Side note, I also think the IRS should allow up to $500 pet tax credit for a maximum of 2 large pets (dogs, cats, or horses) which have been licensed and registered, because vet bills, food, and housing are expensive, yo. But if you’re found guilty of animal cruelty, you have to repay the credits collected for the lifetime of the pet in question.