The U.S. birth rate has been declining precipitously since 2007 and shows few signs of rebounding. The adverse implications are many and wide-ranging, from a reduced demand for educational services and housing in the shorter term to the negative economic effects of a smaller labor pool supporting an aging population. The policy prescriptions for increasing birth rates, however, generally fall into one of two camps: Progressives consistently advocate for pro-natal policies that favor unmarried women and the poorest households, while conservatives seek out options that encourage marriage.
While progressive policies such as universal basic income transfers or other financial incentives have had varying degrees of success in Europe, they are also costly. A recent paper used the Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend—supplemental income sent to all residents based on state oil revenues—as a kind of stand-in for a universal basic income and found a positive impact on birth rates, but mostly for unmarried Native American women with low educational attainment.
Others, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, point to increased immigration as a solution. “The only way we’re going to have a great future in America is if we welcome and embrace immigrants, the DREAMers and—all of them,” he said. Presumably, we should welcome more immigrant families as they have higher birth rates than native-born households. While that is true, it’s also true that fertility rates have declined even more sharply among immigrants than among native-born women. And the U.S.-born descendants of Hispanic and Asian immigrants have fertility rates below the replacement level.
Policies that focus on cash payments or increased immigration ignore an important reality: Married women already have higher birth rates. In 2009, 7.3 percent and 4.1 percent of married and unmarried women 15 to 49 years old, respectively, gave birth to a child. Ten years later, it remained steady for married women but declined to 2.9 percent for unmarried women. Thus policies that encourage marriage can help increase birth rates more effectively, do not have to be as costly, and can improve the well-being of children and families.
One factor that can be linked to the birth rate decline is the adverse marriage market professional women face. While the internet and remote work have made it easier for white-collar women to raise children, educational trends have made it harder for them to find spouses with whom to do so. “Where broadband internet access expanded in Germany, birthrates among high-skilled women rose,” Lyman Stone, Laurie DeRose, and Bradford Wilcox noted. “Much white-collar work can be done remotely, if fast internet is available at home and employers are not unreasonably demanding of their employees’ time.” However, it is the impact of the large gender educational gap—women comprise 60 percent of four-year college graduates—on their marriage rates that may be most important.
“Younger women and less-educated women were more likely to find demographically suitable potential marital partners available to them,” Daniel Lichter, Joseph Price, and Jeffrey Swigert reported. “Conversely, older and highly educated women were more likely to face shortages of marital partners.”
Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution whose work focuses on inequality and social mobility, has been the most vocal and influential advocate for initiatives to raise male educational attainment. He noted that girls are 14 percentage points more likely than boys to be considered “school ready” at age 5, which is a “much bigger gap than the one between rich and poor children, or Black and white children, or between those who attend preschool and those who do not.” As a result, Reeves proposes delaying the entry of at-risk boys into the first grade. For older students, Reeves would like to see “a massive investment in male-friendly vocational education and training” to complement the funding we already give to colleges.
A more direct way to increase marriage rates may be to eliminate the marriage penalties on the earned-income tax credit (EITC). Say a low-wage working woman is considering having a child with a working partner. The existing EITC is based on family income, so she would lose a substantial share of the anticipated EITC by marrying the child’s father and combining their incomes. If she has any qualms about having a child before marriage, she could just choose to wait.
Together with Angela Rachidi, I proposed an EITC adjustment that would eliminate this marriage penalty for a large share of working women in these circumstances by substantially increasing the income range before the credit is reduced for married couples. Unlike universal basic income, which provides incentives for poor unmarried women, this initiative benefits two working partners who now have an incentive to not only have children but to marry. Moreover, it also provides substantial additional credits to married couples in the lower-middle class, offering an incentive for them to have more children.
Unfortunately, progressives are not willing to entertain policies that will increase childbearing through increasing marriage rates. For them, anything that smacks of reinforcing the traditional family should be avoided. The current voting patterns—in which married women vote Republican while unmarried women vote Democratic—may be one more reason for this unwillingness. However, without finding ways to increase marriage rates, not only will childbearing continue to suffer but so too might the well-being of children.