The U.S. birthrate keeps hitting new lows. While an average of 2.1 births per women of childbearing age is considered the replacement rate that would keep the population stable, America is now well below that, at an average of 1.6 children each. 

And the desire to have children has also fallen, according to a new research brief for the Institute for Family Studies. Today, nearly 1 in 4 childless adults says “No thanks.”

In “No Honey, No Baby: The Relational and Economic Factors Associated With Having Children in America,” Wendy Wang, the institute’s director of research, looks for an explanation of a trend that now seems to buck some of the usual suspects: demographics, economics and family-friendly policy. Her research suggests a lot of separate factors are mingling to lead many young American adults to say “I don’t” to marriage and raising families.

“The decline of marriage goes hand in hand with falling fertility rates, simply because married women have a much higher fertility rate than unmarried women,” Wang writes, noting research by demographer Lyman Stone that shows about half the decline in fertility since 2008 tracks with a much lower marriage rate. 

In 2020, the birthrate was 81 per 1,000 married women ages 14-55, and 39 per 1,000 for unmarried women in that age group.

Even among those who want to have children, there are challenges.

A summer 2021 survey by YouGov for the institute and BYU’s Wheatley Institution found the biggest drag on reaching desired fertility is the hunt for the right spouse or partner. That led the list of reasons people weren’t reaching their desired fertility, at 44% — and was even higher among childless adults — followed by 36% who said they couldn’t afford children, and 25% who said lifestyle or career were barriers. Thirteen percent said they had trouble conceiving, while 16% said they were not yet done having children.

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Shifting patterns

Three factors that typically influence having children — demographics, economics and policy changes — simply don’t account for what’s happening to the U.S. birthrate, according to an opinion piece by Melissa Kearney, Phillip B. Levine and Luke Pardue published recently by MarketWatch that was based on their study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. They said the pattern of fewer births during lean times and more births when recovery occurs is no longer holding up.

Instead, the plunge in the birthrate has been steep since the Great Recession, with no rebound and a further drop. “It is reflective of lower childbearing rates across successive cohorts,” they wrote.

Their list of women with lower birthrates than prior to 2007 are those in their early 20s, late 20s and teens; white, Black and Hispanic women, those with and without college degrees and both married and unmarried women. “The population of U.S. women of childbearing age (generally considered to be 15 to 44) has actually shifted toward groups that tend to have higher birthrates, not lower birthrates, with the exception of a rising share of women of childbearing age being unmarried,” they reported.

And yet the birthrate continues to fall.

Their research dismisses some suspects. They said effective contraception, the high cost of raising kids, more women in satisfying careers and lots of student debt didn’t prove to play a significant role in their findings. 

Wang found another trend that’s shifted a lot when it comes to falling birthrates: an education divide.

“People with a college degree are less likely to be in this group. This reminds me of the ‘marriage divide,’ where college graduates are more likely to be married than non-college grads. What we see is that college-educated adults are not only more likely to be married, but also to have children. This is a new phenomenon given that traditionally college-educated Americans have been the group with fewer children or no children, compared with the working-class Americans,” Wang told the Deseret News.

The future with fewer kids

Experts say it’s hard to predict clearly what will happen to the birthrate — or to the country — if the rate stays at its current level or keeps falling. But there’s cause, some say, for real concern.

“Experts speculate ramifications exist for schools, for the economy, for building personal wealth and even for personal relationships, with different effects for the young, middle-aged or old,” as the Deseret New reported last year.

Stone, the demographer, who is a scholar with both the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, worries most that women will not be able to have the number of children they desire because of various factors — a kind of human tragedy that could also lead to people being lonelier and maybe poorer as they grow old.

There are very practical, more tangible challenges, too, like the impact on a smaller-generation workforce that’s trying to support the social safety net or meet all the workforce demands that are vital to a robust economy.

Pam S. Perlich, the director of demographic research for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, believes that building supports into society and the workplace that make it easier for young families to feel economically secure enough to have children would make a difference.

She and Stone have said robust family growth boosts a nation in ways folks might not generally consider, including strengthening the economy, fueling entrepreneurship and allowing adults to accumulate the wealth they will one day pass on to the next generation. Without children, education institutions die off, reducing innovation. The stock market needs people to buy the products that give a company its value. The housing market depends on successive generations launching so that those already there can cash out when they’re ready.

Fewer births, they say, will in some way impact everyone.

More findings

Wang’s survey highlighted other findings regarding fertility.

  • Many who want children but haven’t found the right partner say they won’t have children unless they do, at 58%. The other 42% said they might have children on their own if they don’t find the right partner.
  • Close to 1 in 4 adults who don’t have children say they don’t want to have a child.
  • Nearly half of parents who want more children and 43% of those who are childless but want children say a child allowance would make them more likely to have one or more kids. 

The 2021 American Family Survey, released by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, also found that a child allowance could boost fertility rates somewhat by helping families financially. Both Wang’s research and that survey also found that the child allowance could move some couples who didn’t hope or expect to have children to change their minds.

Said Wang, “The child allowance gets stronger responses from Democrats and religious Americans, the two groups that do not always overlap. Part of the reason is that Democrats are more likely to be unmarried and childless, and religious Americans are more likely to be in the group that has children and wants more children.”

Still, she noted by email, “Even though the two groups do not overlap much, they share the same interest of wanting (more) children and could use financial help.”