Americans don’t make as many babies as they used to. Last year 3.6 million were born – the lowest number since 1979. The pandemic “baby bust” could depress the number of 2021 even further; Researchers estimate that the coronavirus and its economic impact in the United States could result in about 300,000 fewer births this year.
News of falling birth rates isn’t always bad. It may mean women have fewer unwanted pregnancies and choose to postpone parenting. However, a decline in the birth rate usually leads to economic fears, as fewer workers and taxpayers flow into it decades later. Demographers disagree on the gravity of this concern – the US birthrate is still higher than many comparable countries – but there’s another reason this matters: while unwanted pregnancies may have decreased, some survey data suggests point out that many Americans don’t have as many children as they would like. This is a sign that having and raising a child in America is too difficult.
Countries whose birth rates have increased have lessons about what could work in the US. The two most important ways you can help people have the children they want are by giving them time and money. A country can offer financial assistance in the form of cash and tax credits; It can also promote job flexibility by funding parental leave and childcare programs and by providing job protection to parents who choose to work part-time. These strategies, demographers told me, address two main reasons why many people who want children are reluctant to have them: because they can’t afford it and because they don’t want to compromise on their careers.
Tomáš Sobotka, a researcher at the Vienna Institute for Demography, Austria who has studied birth rates around the world, told me that governments would be wise to offer a mix of support to everyone. “When you make them universal,” he said, “couples just choose themselves to choose different guidelines that they like.”
According to Sobotka, there can be an increase in the number of births in the years immediately after a change in family policy has been introduced in a country. This happened, for example, in Sweden in the early 1990s after an extension of parental leave for some families, and in Poland in the mid-2010s after the government started giving parents who added another child a monthly benefit of around US $ 130. Offering dollars to family. But the recovery is short-lived in many countries, and Sobotka warned that these policies could lead some parents to simply have children earlier than planned.
In the long run, the impact of policies on birth rates is generally more modest, but still evident. Sobotka told me that countries that spend more on family support have higher birth rates on average. Over the past two decades, Germany and Estonia have seen their birth rates rise as they have given residents more childcare options and better-paid parental leave.
One country whose birth rate has risen sharply is the Czech Republic. Admittedly, the magnitude of the increase is partly due to the fact that that number bounced back from a very low point: the Czech birth rate bottomed out about 20 years ago after plummeting in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the age at which Czech women tended to have their first child rose, which mathematically will temporarily lower the birth rate.
The steep rise since then is attributed to improved economic and political stability, the flattening of the average age of fresh mothers, and support from parents, particularly in the form of monetary and tax credits. In the mid-2000s, the Czech Republic began paying parents around US $ 10,000 per child in monthly cash installments; Today this “parental allowance” totals around 14,000 US dollars, which is almost as much as Czech employees earn on average per year after tax. Lyman Stone, research director at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, told me that he thinks cash assistance is particularly effective because families can choose how to use it, and pointed out that spending on cash-based family benefits accounts for a higher proportion of Czech GDP the average of the OECD, a group that represents 38 mostly wealthy countries.
Sobotka said the Czech Republic’s policies have resulted in more births over time, particularly of second and third children. He noted that birth rates rose faster there than in neighboring Slovakia, which had a similar post-Soviet fertility decline but a less generous package of measures.
Right now America is in a fertility downturn similar to the Czech one a few decades ago (minus the decline of communism). In the US, the median age of mothers when they were first born rose from 21 in 1972 to 26 in 2018. Leslie Root, a postdoctoral researcher in demography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told me that if this phenomenon continues, it could cause American fertility to decline further for another five to ten years.
While this decline may be inevitable, it doesn’t mean that new family-friendly policies in America won’t help. “If you look at the US compared to peer countries, we could literally start anywhere,” Root told me, “because the bar for what we do for parents is on the ground.”
The recent expansion of the child tax credit – which brings parents up to $ 3,600 per year per child per year – is a start, but is not currently expected to come into effect until this year. A more ambitious and comprehensive package, said Root, could help a fertility recovery in the US once the median age at first birth stabilizes – though she doesn’t expect anything of Czech proportions.
Sobotka, meanwhile, told me that another way to think about the role of politics is not to create “a baby boom in the future” but to prevent “fertility from falling much lower than it has before”. With that in mind, success can end up looking a bit like stagnation. But behind this apartment number there would be the undeniable advantage that more people can have the families they want.
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