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The Birth Dearth Is About Culture, Not Costs

By John Stonestreet and Shane Morris, this was originally published on

Babies aren’t popular, right now.  

In fact, on average, Americans have never had fewer children as we did in 2020. Of course, that was also the year the pandemic began, something that historically, like war and recession, tends to empty maternity wards.  

The decline in our nation’s birth rate, however, didn’t begin with COVID-19, and there’s little reason to believe it has turned around in the last year and a half. The current decline goes back a while now, and didn’t reverse when the economy boomed in the second half of the 2010s. In fact, the dwindling U.S. birth rate seems strangely indifferent to what’s happening in the stock market or the headlines. It’s almost as if, no matter our financial or political situation, Americans are simply choosing to have fewer and fewer children year by year. And, it’s not because they can’t afford them. It’s because they don’t want them. 

That’s the conclusion of a new study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectiveswhich found that economic factors such as rising cost of living or student debt, factors which historically played outsized roles in fertility rates, are not when it comes to declining birth rates today. To isolate what is causing today’s decline, the authors estimated the impact of policy and economic shifts—things such as Medicaid coverage, abortion access, childcare cost, and sex education. “Perhaps the key explanation for the post-2007 sustained decline in US birth rates,” the authors conclude, “is not…some changing policy or cost factor, but rather shifting priorities across cohorts of young adults.” Or as Patrick Brown at the Institute for Family Studies summarized: “It’s not the economy, stupid, but the culture.” 

 In fact, American incomes have reached record highs, and standards of living are better than they were in decades past. Americans, on average, have the resources to bear and raise more children than they are, something like 5.8 million more, according to the Institute for Family Studies’ Lyman Stone 

One factor that did stand out as firmly predicting fertility was marriage rates. Birth rates among married women haven’t changed much since the mid-1990s. What has changed is the percentage of women getting married. That number has fallen by nearly half since 1990. According to Brown, “It doesn’t seem to be the case that women who might have had multiple children are stopping at one, but rather delayed marriage and childbirth are preventing more women from having any children at all.” 

The authors of the study cite cultural preferences about adult life as the cause of both falling marriage and fertility. This shouldn’t really surprise us. As a 2018 poll publicized by The New York Times found, the most frequently cited reason for young adults’ decision not to have children was a desire for more leisure time. 

Patrick Brown at the Institute for Family Studies is appropriately cautious about what we can learn from this research. For example, it doesn’t mean policies designed to make parenting easier for young couples aren’t important or that we don’t need to address the student debt crisis. What it does mean is that it’s time to rethink the conventional wisdom about why people decide to have children. We are not purely economic creatures. Cultural attitudes, norms, and preferences about what makes for a meaningful life have a far bigger impact on fertility than previously thought. Young adults today are having fewer children than ever before, not because they can’t keep food on the family table, but because for so many there is no family table. 

Christians should have different priorities. Throughout Scripture, God prioritizes marriage and children. In the creation account, in the history of Israel, in the Wisdom literature, and in the New Testament Epistles, family is seen as a blessing, the cradle of faith, the place where culture begins, a center of worship. and the setting for some of the greatest joys human beings can experience.   

That doesn’t mean that single life is any less of a calling, or that every young person should focus all their energy on finding a life partner. Just that it wouldn’t hurt for more churches and Christian families to play matchmaker, helping young adults reimagine what life should be. We ought not imitate a society that, in its zeal to get the most out of life, is forgetting to pass it on.

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