Since the average American woman has 2.1 children, you might think we aren’t experiencing a national fertility crisis. Unlike some European countries whose futures are threatened by low birth rates, Americans, on average, produce just the right number of future workers, soldiers, and taxpayers to keep our society humming. Our families are also, on average, comfortably smaller than those in some developing countries, where high birthrates help keep women and children severely impoverished. But here’s the problem: Because the American fertility rate is an average, it obscures the fact that our country is actually more like two countries, which are now experiencing two different, serious crises.
You hear about the “haves” versus the “have-nots,” but not so much about the “have-one-or-nones” versus the “have-a-fews.” This, though, is how you might characterize the stark and growing fertility class divide in the United States. Two new studies bring the contrasting reproductive profiles of rich and poor women into sharp relief. One, from the Guttmacher Institute, shows that the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years. The other, by the Center for Work-Life Policy, documents rates of childlessness among corporate professional women that are higher than the childlessness rates of some European countries experiencing fertility crises.
Childlessness has increased across most demographic groups but is still highest among professionals. Indeed, according to an analysis of census data conducted by the Pew Research Center, about one quarter of all women with bachelor’s degrees and higher in the United States wind up childless. (As Pew notes, for women with higher degrees, that number is actually slightly lower than it was in the early 1990s—but it is still very high.) By comparison, in England, which has one of the highest percentages of women without children in the world, 22 percent of all women are childless. According to the new Center for Work-Life Policy study, 43 percent of the women in their sample of corporate professionals between the ages of 33 and 46 were childless. The rate of childlessness among the Asian American professional women in the study was a staggering 53 percent.
At the same time, the numbers of both unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women have climbed steadily in recent years. About half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned, with poor women now five times more likely than higher-income women to have an unplanned pregnancy, and six times more likely to have an unplanned birth, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s recent analysis of government data.
If our overall fertility rate is at replacement level—if we have enough young people in the pipeline to do all the jobs that will need doing going forward—does it really matter so much if some women are having more kids than they are ready for and some are having fewer? Unfortunately for women on both ends of the economic spectrum, it does. Poorer women suffer when they have unintended births—as do their children. Research shows that women with unplanned pregnancies are more likely to smoke, drink, and go without prenatal care. Their births are more likely to be premature. Their children are less likely to be breastfed, and more likely to be neglected and to have various physical and mental health effects. Then, reinforcing the cycle, the very fact of having a child increases a woman’s chances of being poor.
Across the reproductive divide, there are other serious problems. The declining fertility of professional women ought to be sounding an alarm, highlighting the extent to which our policies are deeply unfriendly to parents. Low birthrates in Europe have inspired a slew of policies designed to make it easier to simultaneously work and parent, yet here, because our overall birthrate is robust, we’ve had no such moment of reckoning. So while Germany recently responded to the fact that its birthrate had slipped below 1.4 children per woman by making its paid leave policy more generous, allowing mothers and fathers to split up to 18 months after the birth of a child, the United States still has no national paid leave law in place. And while Denmark, France, and Sweden provide good subsidized care to the vast majority of their populations, we still have no decent childcare system.
This lack of support makes for not a little unpleasantness in the lives of working parents. Consider the harried existence of professional parents, as described by the Center for Work-Life Policy report:
They are working longer and harder, shouldering new responsibilities for aging parents, and striving overtime to provide their children with all that they, in many cases, had lacked—a smooth path of success and both parents by their side. The costs are steep and include anxiety and exhaustion.
If this is the job description, it’s easy to see why women would skip the interview.
At the same time, there’s little question why poorer women are having more unintended pregnancies. Only about 40 percent of women who needed publicly funded family planning services between 2000 and 2008 got them, according to the Guttmacher Institute. During that same period, as employment levels and the number of employers offering health insurance went down, the number of women who needed these services increased by more than 1 million.
The fact that our extremes seem to almost magically balance each other out is only part of the reason we’ve failed to recognize these problems. The other part is that we’ve applied a distorted notion of choice to both trends. Certainly many professional women opt out of motherhood because they want to—and because that choice is now less stigmatized than it once was. And many women in all income brackets come to embrace an unexpected pregnancy as a happy accident.
But as much as we’d like to see our decisions about pregnancy and childbirth as straightforward exercises of individual will, or choice, there are clearly larger forces at work here, too. “Whether it’s the lack of services and education you experience because you’re poor or the corporate pressure because you’re successful, the broader society’s organization of work and support completely affects something as personal and intimate as whether you have children,” says Wendy Chavkin, professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia. “These latest numbers show how the macroeconomic trends are lived out in people’s personal lives.”
With growing poverty rates and political attacks on already inadequate family-planning funding threatening to drive the number of unintended pregnancies among poor women even higher, and little effort being made to address the pressures driving other women away from having kids, it’s easy to imagine how these forces could push professionals and poor women further apart. Still, in their own ways, both are struggling with the same problem: an untenable “choice” between children and financial solvency. At this point, it may be the only thing they have in common.