In the 1950’s and prior times, it was normal for 98% of married couples to have children. Even though types of birth control existed, childless couples were relatively rare. Those who were childless by choice were considered somewhat eccentric.
Today in the United States many people are foregoing having children not merely as a lifestyle choice, but because they cannot both have children and remain in the middle class. This trend is now increasing dramatically. Not having children is a deliberate choice now used by many as a way to try to stay in the middle class.
As Elizabeth Warren writes in The Two-Income Trap:
“Our research eventually unearthed one stunning fact. The families in the worst financial trouble are not the usual suspects. They are not the very young, tempted by the freedom of their first credit cards. They are not the elderly, trapped by failing bodies and declining savings accounts. And they are not a random assortment of Americans who lack the self-control to keep their spending in check. Rather, the people who consistently rank in the worst financial trouble are united by one surprising characteristic. They are parents with children at home. Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse…And the lines at the bankruptcy courts are not the only signs of financial distress. A family with children is now 75 percent more likely to be late on credit card payments than a family with no children. The number of car repossessions has doubled in just five years. Home foreclosures have more than tripled in less than 25 years, and families with children are now more likely than anyone else to lose the roof over their heads.”
Having children in the United States is becoming more and more about economics, and less about life values. Many people who cannot afford to raise their children at a minimal middle-class level are choosing not to have children at all, while others are choosing to have only one child–not necessarily by choice, but because doing so would condemn them to a life of perpetual poverty.
Compare this with life in some other countries. Many other countries provide at least some kind of logistical help, financial support, or other help for couples with children because everyone in those societies agrees that children ARE important.
In France, for mothers who choose to return to work quickly, day care for ALL children who are younger than school age is completely paid for by the state, so that mothers don’t have a problem. Fathers are given a paid leave of several years (equivalent to a full working salary) if they choose to stay home and take care of their child.
The situation in the United States is very different. There is usually NO ONE to help parents take care of their children, and no financial or state assistance of any kind for the new parents. In the United States, mothers may have up to three months of UNPAID maternity leave. Because it is unpaid, many mothers return to work after only two or three weeks, because it is all they can afford, and because they are afraid of losing their jobs, or of permanently hurting their chances for advancement if they inconvenience their employers by taking a full three months. Few fathers would dare ask for paternity leave (also unpaid). To do so brands a man forever as someone not serious about his career, and as someone never to be promoted.
Many countries, even third-world countries, pay a monthly allowance to families with children (regardless of family income). Even in third-world countries, support and aid is given to ALL parents who have children because those societies believe that children are an important part of EVERYONE’s lives. Those societies tend to be in-group societies, where people have very close relations and obligations between family members, and where children are considered necessary in order to take care of parents, or where children have legal and filial obligations toward parents and brothers and sisters, and toward their other family members (such as in the Muslim world, where male members of families are considered somewhat responsible for taking care of female members of families).
Morocco, for example, pays all parents with children a monthly subsidy for EACH child of 200 DH ($23) a month. This subsidy goes to wealthy parents as well as to poor parents. While this money makes little difference for wealthy parents, for poor parents, it can go a long way toward feeding their child (many very poor families are subsisting on a diet of bread and tea) or even toward buying school supplies. (Morocco also subsidizes all the staple food items consumed by the poor such as flour, tea, sugar, and oil; although families of all income levels benefit from the subsides.)
The United States is not an in-group society. People with children are not given any financial assistance from the state. If people choose to have children and later fall upon bad economic times, or have bad luck, or can’t live at a middle-class level, no one is sympathetic to their plight. Most people now just say, “No one told them to have children. They made their own bed (by doing so), and now they can lie in it.”
An unexpected effect of the birth control revolution of the 1960’s seems to be that in today’s world, especially in the United States, it is becoming increasingly the case that many in the middle class can no longer afford to have two (or more) children. An increasing number of families are opting for just one child, or are remaining childless. In fact, it is through limiting or foregoing children entirely that many couples are remaining in the middle class at all.
As Elizabeth Warren writes, in The Two-Income Trap:
“The families in the worst financial trouble are not the usual suspects. They are not the very young, tempted by the freedom of their first credit cards. They are not the elderly, trapped by failing bodies and declining savings accounts. And they are not a random assortment of Americans who lack the self-control to keep their spending in check. Rather, the people who consistently rank in the worst financial trouble are united by one surprising characteristic. They are parents with children at home. Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.”
Birth rates in younger groups of women have fallen to all-time lows, whereas birth rates (with assistive technology) in women over 40 (who have enough career and financial success to afford it) have risen to all-time highs (for that age group).
Some of the very poor are continuing to have children in the United States, at higher rates than many in the middle class, for several reasons. One reason is that some of them cannot afford birth control. Another reason is that married or not, among the poor, there is a higher incidence of domestic violence and oppression of women with higher incidences of forced sex without condoms or other birth-control protection.
I feel that what is happening is birth rates (among couples in their 20’s and 30’s) have declined dramatically among the middle class in the United States, for economic reasons, and that this trend is continuing to accelerate. People in other countries are shocked that the United States does not give any financial, logistical, or moral support to couples with children. Meanwhile, most in America feel such policies should not be in place, that having children is an entirely personal decision, and the responsibility for the children belongs entirely to the parents.