One theory that experts offer to explain the declining birth rate is the economy, hypothesizing that women do not have children they feel they cannot afford. But that explanation doesn’t fully explain the actions of two groups of women: teenagers, and adults who choose never to have kids.
Another theory holds that the fewer children are born, the weaker the economy will be when they grow up, but that doesn’t take into account immigration or the decisions of childfree adults.
The government reports that “Birth rates for teen moms have been falling since 1991 and hit another historic low [in 2011]. The number of teen births last year — about 330,000 — was the fewest in one year since 1946.”
It’s hard to argue that teenagers should have more babies. There are elevated health risks both for teenage mothers and their babies. The majority of younger teenage mothers do not graduate high school, and those who do move on to jobs tend to earn relatively low wages, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. The fact that they are having fewer children is great news.
It is partly explained by contraception. The “use of contraceptives during first premarital sex has been increasing,” according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute. As of 2008, 84% of people having premarital sex for the first time, most of whom are teens, used birth control. That is up from only 56% using birth control before 1985.
Obamacare will increase this percentage even more because it will make contraceptives free through insurance companies by January 1st, 2013.
The number of women who choose not to have children is on the rise. These women’s decisions, which contribute to the decline in American fertility rates, are evidence of increasing independence and opportunity for women. They reveal a weakening of the traditional view that womanhood and motherhood are practically the same thing, that women who don’t become mothers are not doing their job or fulfilling their potential.
The falling birth rates in the United States may mean that more women are taking control over their lives, establishing goals and planning how to reach them, and thinking with an open mind about how, when, and whether children fit into their life plans. Relaxing social mores to make it acceptable for adults not to want children broadens women’s horizons.
Some fear that low birth rates will hurt the economy down the line. For example, the Social Security (and Medicare) taxes deducted from working adults’ paychecks go directly to support retired people. If there are fewer working adults in the future because of low birth rates today, the reasoning goes, there will be less money to support retirees in the future.
There are three reasons not to worry. First, the United States has no shortage of people who want to immigrate here and whose paychecks will help support the Social Security system.
Second, while today’s childfree adults are not creating future workers, they are helping to educate them. Like other property owners, the childfree pay taxes that support local schools. With fewer children in school, and taxes coming in from a growing number of people who don’t have children of their own in the school system, schools will have more money to spend per student. Better education and training could translate into higher earning power, which could also help fund Social Security.
Third, while the government gives tax credits to people who have dependent children, it doesn’t give credits to taxpayers with no kids. More money in government coffers means more ability to shore up the economy should it face trouble.
The United States’ falling birth rates are evidence of great progress for teenagers and for women who prefer not to have children, and they are not cause for economists to worry.