The Home Front

Selling the Rewards of Parenthood: Couples Ain’t Buying

For all the hue and cry about overpopulation it is becoming clear that there is a baby bust in our country (and across most of the globe). Several factors seem to be contributing to this trend. Nearly one out of five American women never have children. College-educated women are increasingly delaying marriage and motherhood for financial reasons — and it’s paying off.  

College-educated women are reaping most of the benefits of later marriage: They can enjoy the greater economic security that comes with marrying later, while still being able to have children in the relatively stable context of marriage. Women with lower education levels get a much smaller economic bump for marrying later and are less likely to to be married when they have their first child.

And couples are delaying marriage and children for fear of repeating the cycle of divorce that their parents endured, as well as because of crushing college-loan debt. The acceptance of cohabitation has led to about 70 percent of twenty-somethings choosing that lifestyle over marriage, despite the proof that children fare better with married parents. 

But it seems we need to challenge the current conventional wisdom on encouraging parenthood. Those efforts usually begin with providing paid maternity leave and childcare subsidies. Many are opposed to providing these benefits because of fears about their impact on business — and subsequently the job market. Such fears are not unfounded. And it may take years for businesses — and society at large — to reap the positive aspects these policies would bestow. It’s hard to think long-term. Yet, as Jonathan V. Last — author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting – points out, a strategy to get a higher birth rate has to go even beyond just those kinds of benefits. If that’s all it took, countries like France and Sweden with very generous policies would be having baby booms – they’re not.
Senator Mike Lee and others have talked about giving significant tax breaks for parents raising children, and that approach seems to sit well with young people. Who wouldn’t want to get some of their hard-earned money back to spend as they see fit for their children?

But Last believes we have to go even further. We need to challenge other instilled beliefs that young people have concerning parenthood. For one, they think the government will take care of them in their old age, so that particular perk of parenthood means nothing to them. And the cost of housing in dense urban areas discourages them from having larger families, and so policies supporting telecommuting and other ways to encourage suburban living are needed.

And not only are young couples delaying family life because of their own college debt, they fear the cost of sending several children to college. Last believes we need to totally change the higher-education system.

If college were another industry, everyone would be campaigning for reform. Instead, politicians are trying to push every kid in America into the current exorbitantly expensive system. How could we get college costs under control? For one, we could begin to eliminate college’s role as a credentialing machine by allowing employers to give their own tests to prospective workers. Alternately, we could encourage the university system to be more responsive to market forces by creating a no-frills, federal degree-granting body that awards certificates to students who pass exams in a given subject.

Encouraging married couples to have more children is a complicated issue that has no easy answers. But we should not be apathetic about the issue of our current fertility level. Our country’s future — and the direction it will take on so many levels — is at stake.

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