Want to Increase Birth Rates? Focus on Marriage Rates.

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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.

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