Want to Boost Declining U.S. Birth Rates? It’ll Take More Than a Tax Cut.

Last week, there was an op-ed in the New York Times by Ross Douthat lamenting the decline in the U.S. birth rate. Mr. Douthat foresees that fewer babies means that someday in the future, America will cease to be a global leader.

The statistics he cites are compelling and worth noting:


American fertility plunged with the stock market in 2008, and it hasn’t recovered. Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. birth rates hit the lowest rate ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. (The rate was 71 per 1,000 in 1990.)

The lowest U.S. birth rate ever recorded should give us all pause. Why is this happening? What is occurring in the U.S. environment that’s making people less likely to have babies? Mr. Douthat does a bit of wild finger pointing, blaming everything from the poor economy to the decoupling of children from people’s idea of a good marriage, which he somehow manages to tie into gay marriage. I’d say that’s a bit of a reach given the number of gay couples I know who are raising children, but never mind that. The part I really want to get to is when Mr. Douthat starts talking about concerted policy efforts the U.S. could attempt to nudge the birth rate back up.

Here’s what he says:

Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.

Creative policies. Uh-huh. Actually, there’s no need to be creative at all. There are three, simple-to-the-point-of-being-trite policies we could enact that would make having a child easier. Moreover, none of them involve tax breaks or contorting work schedules so over-extended parents live a relay-like existence of handing off children between shifts.

First, we need to raise the federal minimum wage.  The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, or $290 for a forty hour week, which amounts to $15,080 per year for a worker who takes no days off at all. And that’s before taxes. The federal poverty level of a family of four is $23,050, so you can see how a minimum wage job would be insufficient to support a family without significant government assistance or additional jobs. Two parents trying to cobble together enough minimum wage hours to keep a roof over their heads are not in a good position to expand their families.

Next, we need to subsidize child care. The family earning the $30,000 per year that two minimum wage jobs pays can’t afford to be putting babies in daycare. Depending on where you live, average day care costs run from $4,600 per year to over $15,000 per year. I was paying $17,000 annually for one child in a top daycare in D.C. If you look back at the last paragraph, you’ll note that what I paid exceeds what a person can earn working forty hours per week at minimum wage.  And even as a couple earning two white-collar salaries, my husband and I couldn’t afford to put a second child into daycare. We delayed having a second child until one of us got a new job with a significantly higher salary. Clearly, we are not alone. Bringing down the cost of childcare – without sacrificing quality or forcing childcare providers to be under-compensated – makes having children more manageable.

Finally, we need better, more affordable access to health care. Just the medical costs of bringing a baby into the world can be staggering. Prenatal care is about $2,000, a vaginal birth is close to $10,000, and a C-section is around $15,000. If you have insurance, some of the costs will be mitigated but not all. Then you immediately have the costs of well-baby visits, not to mention expenses if the baby gets sick. Plus all the time spent taking a baby to a doctor’s office is time away from work, potentially cutting into parents’ income. Expansion of health care programs for low-earners and supports for families needing to purchase health insurance, such as the Affordable Care Act provides, makes the cost of keeping a mom and baby healthy more affordable. Knowing you won’t go broke paying for a c-section or a pediatrician visit makes having a child much more appealing.

Until we admit that supporting a family in America requires more than a small tax cut or lower college tuition rates, we’re likely to continue to see declining birth rates. And truthfully, I support the families who look at their finances and see that adding a child would stress the family budget too much. Choosing not to have a child you can’t afford is a valid and responsible decision. If we want to make having a child just as responsible a choice, we need to look at the whole picture.

  • Jessica

    What about a better family leave policy, so women can actually afford to take maternity leave?

    Thanks for this!

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