America's Fertility Challenge

Even if you stayed awake through the policy blizzard that was Wednesday night’s debate, you didn’t hear a word about the dramatically different future the candidates can bring about for women and families. So I’m going to take this opportunity to bypass the rehash of statistics, awkward facial expressions, and possible implications for Big Bird – and go right to the big picture for families.

It’s not just that Mitt Romney thinks the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade, while Obama is clearly pro-choice. Or that the Republican candidate would reverse the coverage of contraception under health reform – a step forward brought to us by the President himself.

These clear differences on reproductive issues have already convinced plenty of American women to cast their ballots for Obama in November. But there are other differences between the candidates that will have a huge impact on reproduction and the daily lives of American families. And, at first, at least, these are policies that seem to have little in common with the hot-button war-on-women issues.

To understand the other way our next president could affect the growth – or decline – of the number of American families, it helps to look abroad. Much of the world has been experiencing a rapid drop in their fertility rates. Nearly half the global population now lives in nations that have fertility rates below replacement level, or 2.1 children on average per woman. But the problem is worst in rich countries, more than 100 of which are now under replacement level, and thus facing concerns about the size of their militaries, work forces, and tax bases.

Several factors fuel this worldwide decline, including greater access to birth control and later marriage. But perhaps the most widely embraced explanation is that the particular burdens women face in the work force make it harder to both have children and a job. Thus, as more and more women work outside the home throughout much of the world, the number of children they have has dropped. It makes sense: If becoming a mother requires a woman to take a huge financial and professional hit, she will be far less likely do it.

Up until recently, the US has been the notable exception to the global fertility pattern. For much of the past 30 years, the average number of children American women had held remarkably steady. Although more and more women began working during this time, the high fertility levels of certain groups –particularly Latino immigrants–seemed to make up for any decline in the rest of us. 

But this year, the US fertility rate hit a low not seen for 25 years. While the average number of births per woman was 2.12 in 2007, it’s just fallen to 1.87. The downturn is, no doubt, in part a response to unemployment and the flagging economy. Yet, as the Population Reference Bureau points out, it could also “signal a longer-term drop in life-time fertility.” In other words, this could be the moment we joint the rest of the developed world in the struggle to maintain our population size.

While the media have been exploring why this dip in our fertility is happening now, a better question might be: why hasn’t it happened before this point? After all, we’re one of just three countries worldwide that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. We have few flexible work options, no national paid sick leave law, and no system of decent, affordable childcare. So compared to women in other nations, Americans are not just having lots of kids, we’re doing it while working a lot in fairly inflexible jobs, with very little help.

This double duty has taken a huge toll: Working mothers in the U.S. sleep a mere six hours a night on average. Our depression rates are high, our free time almost nonexistent. If our collective commitment to both motherhood and work has helped us soldier through this kind of adversity to this point, no one can sustain this kind of overdrive forever. It was inevitable that American mothers would run out of gas at some point – and, judging from the new fertility numbers, our moment has arrived.

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