When news broke in May that the U.S. fertility rate had fallen to a record low, experts scrambled to explain why women aren’t having as many kids as they used to. The data was especially puzzling because many economists expected the fertility rate to recover along with economy—figuring couples would have more kids as they earned a bigger paycheck. They were wrong.
Here at Working Mother, we weren’t at all surprised by the news. Some of our most successful stories have touched on the pain and perks of having only one child. Simply put, the vast majority of moms work outside the home, and, based on our observations, working moms simply have fewer children.
We could have saved those experts some digging, and revealed the very-obvious reason why today's moms are forgoing big families: Daycare costs are too damn high.
That observation has been confirmed by a recent survey by The New York Times of 1,858 men and women ages 20 to 45. Of the people who said they had or expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal, a whopping 64 percent said it was because “childcare is too expensive.” It was the No. 1 reason.
It’s no secret to working families that childcare is now prohibitively expensive. In 33 states, infant care is more expensive than college tuition. Paying to put two kids through daycare is simply out of the question. Thus the average working mom is faced with the following dilemma: Quit her job—and potentially derail her career prospects—to stay home with two kids. Or just have one.
For many working moms, the answer—though sometimes disappointing and painful—is obvious.
But it’s not just about money for working moms when it comes to family size. It’s also about time—as in, we have none. The No. 2 reason people offered for fewer kids in the Times survey? “Want more time for the children I have.” That’s especially true for working moms, who spend 98 hours a week on both work and family duties. Until employers start offering more flexible work and part-time schedules, and dads start pulling their weight with chores and childcare at home, the prospect of yet more work is going to continue to be a dealbreaker for many working moms.
Of course, the structural weaknesses of the American economy—especially for Millennials, who launched their careers during the Great Recession—is undeniably a factor. Almost half of respondents said they “worried about the economy,” “can’t afford more children” or “waited because of financial instability.” Notably, 39 percent said they didn’t receive enough paid family leave, and another 38 percent said they didn’t receive any paid family leave.
In short, working parents simply can’t afford big families—or medium-sized ones either.
The declining U.S. fertility rate dovetails with another depressing trend: The United States is now in the back of the pack among developed countries when it comes to women's participation in the labor force. Remember that dilemma I mentioned earlier? While lots of moms choose to have just one child, lots of moms also quit their jobs to have more kids.
Crucially, it’s what lots of moms aren’t doing that’s driving both trends: working while having two or three kids.
That’s a big deal for two reasons: Labor force participation is an important economic driver. The more moms who work, the better for our economy. And declining fertility rates spell trouble down the road, when a smaller workforce will have to support a large retiree population.
Two relatively easy fixes would solve much of the crisis: paid family leave and subsidies that actually defray the costs of childcare. Both are common in most European countries, where women’s labor force participation is largely on the rise.
Economists and demographers who are waiting for the American economy to hit some magical milestone before women decide en masse to get pregnant will be waiting a very long time. It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s what the government could do—but won’t—to support working moms.