When Timothy Carney came to Salt Lake City, he was drawn to one of the chicest neighborhoods in town — the Lower Avenues.

As he strolled up and down the streets, he recalled thinking it would be the perfect place to raise kids. The only issue is he didn’t see any. Instead, he encountered a couple who said they were trading Teletubbies and cleaning up vomit for margaritas in Paris by not having children. And he saw a woman pushing a double stroller with two chihuahuas.

Carney recounted his experience to a chuckling audience during his lecture Thursday at Brigham Young University. Hosted by the Wheatley Institute, Carney, who is a senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute, spoke about broader trends in American culture that make it difficult to have kids.

Something of an economic wonk and political journalist, Carney didn’t introduce himself at the lecture by recounting the moments in his career that led him to pen his forthcoming book “Family Unfriendly.” Instead, he immediately flicked to a slide dominated by a picture of him with his wife and first baby in the hospital.

He sees himself first as Tim Carney, husband and father of six.

Carney, who is Catholic, said around the time he started having kids, in 2006 and 2007, celebrities like Heidi Klum, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and others were having children.

It could have been the start to a baby boom, but instead it can only be referred to in the diminutive — a baby boomlet — because the birth rate plummeted afterward. And now we’re in a baby bust, he said.

“There are actually fewer children in America — not percentage, but number — than there were 10 years ago,” Carney said.

So why should people care? That’s the simple question Carney posed during his presentation.

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Baby boom or bust?

Offering four reasons, Carney said there are economic benefits to having more children, women generally want to have children, the so-called baby bust reflects something broken about our culture, and finally, “babies are good, actually.”

The shrinking of the working age population could have drastic impacts, Carney warned. “Neither private savings nor government pensions seems to work unless there are enough workers to meet the needs of older Americans.”

Carney cited data from Gallup showing that most Americans want around two or three kids, even though they aren’t having that many. The “why” was what Carney explored next. He doesn’t think affordability or selfishness are adequate explanations.

“We had more babies during the recession than we do now,” Carney said. And he later added, “I don’t think you can explain a falling birth rate by selfishness any more than you could explain the rise in plane crashes by pointing to gravity.”

Cultural shifts, especially as it pertains to religion, may be responsible.

Carney wanted not only to figure out why Americans were not having as many kids, but also which places in the country were having many babies and why. So, he traveled to the county with the most births per person.

Upon arrival, the first two people he met were married college sophomores. He strolled down a street where he saw a bridal shop, a boutique that sells baby clothes, another bridal shop, an engagement ring store and a brand new wedding venue. He didn’t think it was normal, especially for a college town.

When he went to a local restaurant, the hostess cheekily explained, “That’s why we call it BYU I Do.” Carney had found himself in Madison County, Idaho. Specifically, he was in Rexburg, Idaho.

Timothy Carney, AEI fellow, delivers a speech at Brigham Young University on March 14, 2024. | Hanna Seariac, Deseret News

The cultural components of religion that involve having big families was a factor Carney identified as what led to the higher birth rate. And this wasn’t just true for people in a particular area that are religious.

To make his point, Carney spoke about his trip to Israel where he talked to secular Jewish people who told him that religion had nothing to do with their decision to have kids. “Secular people in Israel have more babies than the average American, so something is happening that trickles out of religious belief,” he said.

Areas with strong religious beliefs and cultures can make an area family-friendly, and lead to a higher birthrate. In order for families to thrive, other family members and community members have to be involved, Carney said. But it’s not just religious entities alone.

Making this point again in a conversation with BYU professor Jason Carroll, Carney pointed toward what’s happened with sports leagues. One of his sons had the opportunity to play on a traveling baseball team. After his son made the team, the coach emailed over workouts (the kids were 12 years old) and told them, “Baseball isn’t fun. Winning baseball is fun.”

Turning sports into a job and taking the fun out of it posed a problem, Carney said. He decided their family wouldn’t take it so seriously.

Little Leagues in some towns create strong communities, he said. In the town where he now lives with his family in Virginia, Carney said if the mom of a kid on a Little League team has an accident or gets sick, someone else from that baseball team community will bring over a casserole.

Having children doesn’t just require communities to have a strong family-friendly culture, it also takes personal sacrifice. Oftentimes where that sacrifice occurs is through career choice.

It’s not “terribly common” to have a boss that knows family matters more than a job, Carney said, but if you find one, that’s ideal. “In fact, I emailed Paul (Edwards, Wheatley executive director) earlier and I said tonight my family are doing this nightly prayer and so whatever you had me scheduled for at exactly that time, I’m going to step out and do it with my family.”

Carney said sometimes you have to assert yourself to prioritize your family.

“When I introduced myself, people know right away I have six kids,” Carney said. “And if you assert yourself in that regard, a lot of people will accommodate and respect that.”