Tag Archives: fertility

Fewer children, more employed women: International edition

In the discussion on this post about interpreting historical trends, several people pointed out that the relationship between fertility rates and women’s employment rates is not simple, and has changed, at least in the rich countries. I made some charts using international data about that, which I will show below.

But first a figure from this paper by Rense Nieuwenhuis and colleagues, which he linked from the comments. In that 2012 paper they show that the negative association between motherhood and employment weakened in OECD countries from 1975 to 1999. Still, at the individual level, in almost every country and every year, the odds of being employed are lower for mothers, as this figure shows (dots lower in each box indicate a bigger employment gap between mothers and non-mothers; click to enlarge):

oecd

It’s a very interesting paper I should have recommended earlier.

The fact that mothers are less likely to be employed than women without children doesn’t mean that countries — or time periods — with lower fertility rates necessarily have higher women’s employment rates (see Nieuwenhuis’s comment for a few other papers on this). So it’s good to look at individual as well as macro-level patterns.

Anyway, those are all rich countries. What about poorer countries? Because of the unbelievably good archive of census data (freely available, thank gov) at IPUMS International (74 countries, 238 censuses, 544 million records, and counting), it’s possible to ask questions like this.

Looking for censuses that recorded the number of children ever born to women, as well as their employment status, I sampled 10,000 households each from 89 censuses in 29 countries in Latin America or the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa, ranging in time period from 1960 to 2010. I limited the samples to women ages 25-44, and counted their children up to 7. The countries were:

  • Latin America / Caribbean: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay
  • Africa: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa
  • Asia: China, Indonesia, Vietnam

Here’s what I found. Overall there is not a strong correlation at the country level between mean number of children born per women and employment rates (correlation = -.09):

wlfp1

Closer inspection reveals a pretty strong relationship in the Latin America / Caribbean samples, as well as the three Asian countries, but not the African samples. But this scatter doesn’t show the time trends. If I limit it to the 9 countries that have at least 4 censuses (8 from Latina America, plus Indonesia), they almost all show the pattern I started with: falling fertility and rising women’s employment rates. The arrows track each country’s censuses in chronological order, so moving up and to the left fits the historical pattern:

wlfp2The country-level association is not the same as an individual-level association, because it can’t confirm that women with more children themselves are the ones who aren’t employed. To gauge that I estimate a linear regression within each census, measuring the association between number of children ever born and employment, controlling only for age. These are the results from those 89 regressions. The x-axis is still the mean number of children in each sample, but now the y-axis is the statistical effect of each additional child on the probability of being employed: below 0 indicates that having had more children reduces the probability of employment.

wlfp3In 15 of the 89 samples, each additional child is associated with a greater chance the woman is employed, but in 74 samples the effect is negative*. Furthermore, it appears that countries with lower fertility rates have a stronger negative association between children and employment — each kid reduces the odds of employment more. Consider, though, that a reduction of .11 in the probability of employment for each kid has a lower total effect in a country with two children per mother than a reduction of .05 in a country where people have three kids each**.

If we go back to the 9 countries with at least 4 censuses each, we can compare the trends in fertility to the child effect on employment:

wlfp4Most of these countries (Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Panama, and Mexico) show the pattern in which the child effect strengthened while the fertility rate fell. Uruguay and Argentina show falling child effects and little fertility change.

Two possible conclusions:

  1. Although it may seem prosaic, this reminds me that the long-run, modern movement of women into the paid labor force is closely associated with the decline in fertility (as well as, incidentally, the decline in marriage). I think of that as indicating that women’s labor is increasingly diffused outward from their own children through market (or otherwise socialized) mechanisms. As the prototype, think of a woman with 2 children teaching 30 children in school (while her own kids are in another classroom) instead of spending the day caring for 6 children at home (while growing food, etc.).
  2. The trend toward a smaller employment gap between mothers and non-mothers is a recent, selective, rich-country phenomenon associated with very low fertility rates and (as the Nieuwenhuis et al. paper nicely shows) state policies designed to encourage mothers’ labor force participation (and, they hope, increase fertility).

Footnotes:

* I didn’t bother with significance tests because these were arbitrarily small subsamples from each census; we could always go test them with the full samples.

** I could test a total motherhood effect, like Nieuwenhuis et al. did, but in almost all of these are samples 80% or 90% of women have children, so the kid/no-kid comparison is not as salient.

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Breaking through the Wilcoxian ceiling of nonmarital births

Finishing off right-wing family think-tank recognition week.

In the first post I pointed out the right-wing foundations gave their academic and think-tankian foot-soldiers more than $5 million over three years to prop up conservative family ideals. In the second post I ridiculed Brad Wilcox’s unsupported assertion that “the nation’s retreat from marriage may have bottomed out.” He based that on the fact that marriage rates did not fall in 2010 or 2011 after the very steep drop in 2009. (Thank G-d for small favors.)

Today is a quick one to point out the even worse distortion in the second half of Wilcox’s sunny-side post. He wrote:

In the wake of the Great Recession, nonmarital childbearing has accounted for 41 percent of all births from 2008 to the present. This is the first time in at least 40 years that the percentage of children being born outside of wedlock has remained stable for five years.

That kind of trend-line bottom feeding reminds me of the basketball announcer’s patter as the player steps to the free-throw line: “He’s only 71 percent from the line on the season, but he’s three-for-four so far tonight.”

Anyway, it’s worse than that because of the way demography works. To give away the conclusion: after 2008 births shifted dramatically to older women as younger women’s fertility rates fell. Older women have lower unmarried childbearing rates. So the overall unmarried-birth rate didn’t rise much even as the unmarried-birth rate in each age group continued to rise.

You gotta love demography. Here are the trends.

Note I’m using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, which asks a giant national sample of women each year if they’ve had a baby in the past 12 months. If gives rates a little different from the trend Wilcox showed, which was based on vital registry data submitted by the states to the CDC. I use this because it’s easy to break births out by age and marital status for each year. (Unfortunately, the IPUMS data archive I use doesn’t have the 2012 file up yet, and the Census website was shut down by Wilcox’s friend Mike Lee and his GOP colleagues.)

Anyway. First, here are the percent of births to mothers who are not married, the total and by age group, shown as changes from 2006. Wilcox is talking about the relatively flat “total” trend from 2008 to 2012.

wilcox-blog-debunk-1

In these data the total trend is upward for whatever reason having to do with the data source, but it doesn’t matter because the point is the same. The amazing thing is that by 2011 the total increase is smaller than the increase for each age group! That is, from 2006 to 2011, the percentage of all births that were to unmarried women increased 2.6 percent, but the increase was steeper for each specific group — up to a 4.3 percent increase for women in their 20s. (Some “enduring appeal of marriage”!)

How is this possible? It happened because births shifted from younger to older women, as we’ve known since 2011. And older women are much more likely to be married when they have children. Here’s how big that difference is:

wilcox-blog-debunk-2Twenty-something women are almost twice as likely to be unmarried when they have babies as those in their 30s and 40s. And here’s how big the change was in who was having babies from 2008 forward:

wilcox-blog-debunk-3Wow! Women in their 40s had 80,000 more babies in 2011 than they did in 2006. Those in their 20s had 134,000 less. Remember the women in their 20s were also the ones who had the steepest increase in nonmarital births rates. That means that among this group it was married women who cut their birth rates — probably deliberately postponing births because they have a biological clock buffer and could afford to hold off till (they hoped) the economy picked up. Meanwhile, the older crowd, who are on a long march toward higher birth rates, couldn’t fit that delay into their plans, so their birth rates didn’t fall.

So, back to Wilcox to see how this new evidence fits his triumphal conclusion:

But the enduring appeal of marriage for most Americans may also be part of the story for both of the trends noted above. For the vast majority of Americans, marriage remains an integral part of the American Dream. … The enduring appeal of marriage may translate into a floor for the marriage rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to tying the knot [see the last post], and a ceiling for the nonmarital childbearing rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to having their children in wedlock.

Of course a “substantial share remain committed” to marriage. No one would suggest otherwise. But the ceiling/floor story is just a (pontifical) fantasy. If the percentage of women at every age having their births while not married has continued to increase — regardless of whether the overall percentage is pretty flat for a few years — then we have to conclude the story he tells is complete baloney.

(Follow my Brad Wilcox stories under the National Marriage Project tag even though he’s blogging for the Institute for Family Studies now. As long as IFS operates out of the same post office box as Brad’s shell foundation, I’m not giving them their own tag.)

ADDENDUM: I should have discussed more the differences between these data and the vital statistics. Elizabeth Gregory, author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, sent the following chart using the NCHS data. This appears to confirm that, although the number of births are different, the trends by age after 2008 are very similar to what I reported from the ACS data.
20131004-085555.jpg

ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM: The ACS reports more births than NCHS, because ACS asks about the “previous 12 months,” which goes back to, for example, June for interviews in June, so that can be up to 13 months. Also, ACS respondents on average are interviewed 6 months after they gave birth, so they skew older than the NCHS data. I don’t know if these two differences account for the difference between my numbers from ACS and those sent by Elizabeth Gregory. But I think the point remains that the stall in non-marital births is probably an artifact of the shift to older-age births during the recession.

Sources:

ACS births 2011: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.

Census Powerpoint report on differences with NCHS: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.

 

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It’s not the one-child policy, repeated correction edition

The Washington Post has a poignant story about elderly parents in China whose lives are disrupted by the deaths of their only children. In a society with low fertility, an inadequate pension system, and a high cultural value on generational legacies, this loss is often devastating. And for those who wanted to have more children, but were prevented from doing so by China’s repressive one-child policy, the suffering is more acute, resulting in anger directed toward the state.

I wish, however, that American media would stop unquestioningly attributing China’s low fertility rate to the one-child policy. The Post‘s William Wan writes:

For more than three decades, debate has raged over China’s one-child policy, imposed in 1979 to rein in runaway population growth. It has reshaped Chinese society — with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to estimates by the United Nations — and contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with baby boys far outnumbering girls.

That’s an odd paragraph, because it notes the policy was implemented in 1979 (it was actually 1980), and then compares fertility rates in the “early 1970s” to the present. Isn’t the more reasonable comparison to 1980? The data are available:

Source: World Bank or United Nations.

The drop from 2.6 in 1980 to 1.6 or so today is important (although of course it can’t all be attributed to the policy). But the “plunge” from 4.77 was mostly before the policy took hold.

A recent paper by Wang Feng, Yong Cai, and Baochang Gu considers the common claim that the one-child policy averted 400 million births. They write:

In stating that the one-child policy averted 400 million births, the promoters of the policy first misinterpreted the original results from the study mentioned above. The number of births averted was for the period since 1970, not from 1980, when the one-child policy was formally implemented nationwide. This mistake is crucial because most of China’s fertility transition was completed during the decade of the 1970s—that is, before China’s one-child policy was enacted. Within that decade, China’s total fertility rate dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979. Most of the births averted, if any, were due to the rapid fertility decline of that decade, not to the one-child policy that came afterward.

Dear American news media: Please make a note of a it.

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The declining birthrate doesn’t spell disaster

I have an essay in Time online, to accompany their cover story on child free living (which I haven’t read yet).

20130801-080858.jpg

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Let’s Not Panic Over Women With More Education Having Fewer Kids

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

Though the phenomenon has been called “reverse Darwinism,” a look at the facts and figures reveals it’s not as scary as it seems.

banner_clintons Amy Sancetta.jpg

AP / Amy Sancetta

Women with more education have fewer children—which is one of the reasons why extending equal access to education for women is so important. Women with more education have more opportunities for productive lives doing work other than childrearing. All around the world, when education levels rise, fertility levels fall.

That doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the future of humanity on the altar of gender equality, but it does mean we have to figure out how to raise and support fewer children to be happy and productive (as the economist Nancy Folbre explains).

I wrote about fertility last week, and I’m dwelling on the subject because of What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, Jonathan Last’s panic-book about low fertility. The argument and information in the book aren’t new, but he provides a good example of common misperceptions that are worth considering. At first glance, the argument doesn’t seem to have a conservative political impetus—after all, who’s against children? But that only makes it more important to understand fertility in the context of gender equality.

The general relationship between the number of children women have and their relative status in society is clear: Fewer children means higher status. And the relationship is reciprocal: Higher status for women also leads to lower fertility.

Further, the relationship appears at both the individual level and the societal level. Countries with lower fertility levels have, on average, less gender inequality in the realms of education, income, political and social power. Here is the relationship between total fertility (average number of children per woman) and the UN’s gender inequality index, which combines reproductive health, political representation, educational and labor force equality. (I made bigger dots for bigger countries, and colored the U.S. dot blue.)

cohen fertility 1.jpg

This shows two things:

  • First, there are no societies with high fertility and low gender inequality.
  • Second, there is a range of gender inequality among the low-fertility countries.

I interpret the pattern like this: There is a lot that can be done about gender inequality—once fertility rates are reduced.

This can be a confusing subject, and Last provides a good example of that. Along the way to arguing that we need more babies in the U.S. (and almost everywhere else), Last complains that poor people are aping the low-fertility behavior of the modern, liberal, feminist, self-centered middle class. The poor are having too few children. But he also complains they are having all the children. He writes:

The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.

And he writes:

What we have, then, is a picture of an American middle class that is surprisingly barren … Women who go to college or graduate school are unlikely to have even two children. … It’s a kind of reverse Darwinism where the traditional markers of success make one less likely to reproduce.

Going further than “reverse Darwinism,” Last also said on his Glenn Beck network appearance that we have “survival of the weakest in a way, but even worse.” (In fairness, by that point in the conversation, everyone was getting pretty confused.)

But before debunking this interpretation of the facts, we might first wonder if the facts are even true. In the world of conservative news, it would seem that poor people are sucking the government dry while overpopulating the country with paupers and criminals. Meanwhile, to others—admittedly the set I’m more familiar with—children are seen as the accessories of the narcissistic elite, and rich people are having more kids.

The facts, though, are that poor women have more children (and women with more children are poorer), and that the fertility rates of more-educated women are rising, not falling.

Let’s examine these pieces of data individually.

Fact 1: Women with less education in the U.S. have more children.

From U.S. Census Bureau data, we know that, among women who were finishing their childbearing years (ages 40-44) in 2010, those with less than a high school degree had borne the most children (2.56), and those with advanced degrees had the fewest (1.67). (Last’s comment that “Women who go to college or graduate school are unlikely to have even two children” seems to follow from the fact that college graduates have an average of 1.73 children, but it’s not true. Because about one in every five college graduates have no children, we only get to an average 1.73 because about half actually have 2 or more children.

cohenfertility2.jpg

But this does not mean that, “The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.” That’s because only 10 percent of these women had less than a high-school degree, while 34 percent had achieved a BA degree or higher. So here is the distribution of children according to their mothers’ education level, next to the distribution of women:

completed-fertility-by-education-2010

You can see that women with the least education did have more kids than their share of the population: 14 percent versus 10 percent. But there were twice as many children born to women who were college graduates. So women with higher education are almost doing their share in producing the workers of the future. When it comes to childbearing, in other words, the highly educated are almost pulling their weight.

Fact 2: Educational disparities in fertility rates are decreasing

Among women reaching the end of their childbearing years, the last 15 years have seen a decline in the disparity I just described. Completed fertility rates have increased for those with more education, and decreased for those with less, from 1995 to 2010:

cohenfertility4.png

Remember that, even though their fertility rates are quite high, high school dropouts represent only 10 percent percent of women ages 40 to 44.

To be sure: There are a lot of different ways of measuring fertility rates. I’m using completed fertility—the number of children even born to women who reach the age at which childbearing becomes rare (the census defined this as ages 35 to 44 until 2002, and ages 40 to44 since). And this shows women with less education having more children. However, in any given year, women with higher education are more likely to have a child. That’s because people spend fewer years with advanced degrees; that is, women who end up with advanced degrees spend years without them first, usually not having children while they advance their educations and careers. So in 2011, women with MA degrees or higher were just 9 percent of women in the childbearing ages, but they had 11 percent of the babies.

The counterintuitive thing here is the rise in fertility among women with more education (which Last might be pleased to be able to call Darwinian). I could suggest a few reasons for this:

  • Maybe the advanced degree holders at age 40 in 1995 were trailblazers, who, in their struggle to succeed against the prevailing sexism, chose career over children. Meanwhile, women in law or medicine are more common today—and we’ve learned a little more about combining child-rearing with professional careers. (Which often involves paying poorer women to do more caregiving work, which might lead them to have fewer children).
  • Or, maybe post-feminist professional women have come to care less about their careers and choose, perhaps under duress, more childrearing instead. If that is the case, it might be contributing to the stall in progress toward gender equality and the ratcheting upward ofcompetitive parenting.
  • Maybe our intractable work-family conflict—no paid leave, no universal preschool, inflexible workplaces and long workweeks, fathers’ inflexibility—has forced women to choose between parenting and professional success, and more have decided parenting is the more fulfilling.

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Jonathan Last could live with barefoot-and-pregnant

I was replaced on the guest list for KCRW’s To the Point discussion about Jonathan Last’s book, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. But before I was cut I did some preparation — read some of the book and made some notes.

Last is a writer for the Weekly Standard (in which capacity he recently suggested that, rather than try to reach out to single people, the GOP should instead work on convincing more people to get married), who also wrote for First Things, a Christian conservative website. His essay in the Wall Street Journal sparked my initial post, but the book is more extreme than that column was.

Last doesn’t add substantively to the general concern that below-replacement fertility causes problems, except to exaggerate it cartoonishly for the U.S. (“The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate”). The historical perspective is so weak here I feel the need to remind him that caring for aging Baby Boomers is a problem not of low fertility but high fertility. Were it not for the high fertility of the Baby Boomers’ parents, we would have had gradually declining long-run fertility levels and a working-age population much more up for the task of funding Medicare and Social Security.

In the book he relies heavily on Phillip Longman, the author of “The Empty Cradle,” whom I’ve written about before, but also summons (without mentioning it) Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which bemoans the divergent family structures of middle- and working-class White America and chastises the rich for being too self-absorbed and pleasure-driven to keep up their responsibilities as moral compasses. Thus, he tuts:

The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.

Last and Longman are helping the American patriarchal right get its desire for “traditional” family structures in sync with corporate America’s amoral economic growth obsession, and it turns out boosting fertility is a message they can all get behind (plus it pleases both evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic culture warriors).

last-cover-adapt

My adaptation of the book cover art.

Gender

Of course, fertility rates in the U.S. fell after the Baby Boom as women’s employment rates and educational  attainment increased. And those women with better opportunities have fewer children, on average. (However, this relationship is not universal or inevitable — see developments in Norway, for example.) But Last doesn’t want to create the impression that his wish for higher fertility implies opposition to women’s progress.

I’d also like to offer a preemptive defense against readers who may take this book to be a criticism of the modern American woman. Nothing could be further from my intent. … The more educated a woman is, on average, the fewer children she will have. To observe this is not to argue that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and waiting at home for their husbands every night with a cocktail and a smile.

But that he suggests we have more children — without taking steps to reconcile our endemic work-family conflicts and persistent gender imbalances (he’s not advocating universal childcare or healthcare, better welfare, paid family leave or a shorter workweek) – means that even if he’s not arguing for a return to barefoot-and-pregnant status, he’s at least willing to live with it.

Innovation

His passing nod to Esther Boserup was interesting to me. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s (which Last carelessly calls “a century ago,” after apparently skimming her Wikipedia entry), Boserup argued that population pressure spurred agricultural innovation. That is, farmers figured out how to rotate land more efficiently, for example, when there was more demand for farmland (and food). I don’t know how well this theory is holding up in the historical scholarship (I don’t think it explains European divergence from China, for example) but it is interesting — and we’ve now spent as much time thinking about it as Last did).

From this Last declares that the reverse is also true, that postindustrial societies suffer a lack of innovation when populations shrink. That is a question Boserup was unlikely to have troubled herself with (but let me know if I’m missing something she wrote on it). However, I could conjure the opposite hypothesis – that a rapidly shrinking population would spur a different kind of innovation in postindustrial society. For example, we may face pressure for old people to be more productive, as they delay retirement; and to invest more wisely (and heavily) in the smaller cohorts of children’s education and skill development.

Immigration

Last goes out of his way to say (perhaps too much) that he’s not against immigration, without which American fertility rates would be much lower.  He is just against the immigration of people who don’t assimilate into America’s Christian majority. He writes:

A reasonably liberal program of immigration is necessary for the longterm health of our country. Yet at the same time, this liberal approach to immigration should be coupled with a staunchly traditionalist view of integration. America has been lucky in the way it has assimilated most of its immigrants. Europe—and France in particular—has not. “Europe” as we have known it for 15 centuries is almost certain to fade away in the next 50 years, replaced by a semi-hostile Islamic ummah. All that will remain of what we traditionally know as “Europe” is the name [It's not clear why the hostile Islamic majority of 2063 would retain the name "Europe" -pnc]. This change was not inevitable; it is the result of a policy choice made by adherents of a truly radical faith: multiculturalism. … Tolerance need not be surrender and a certain amount of cultural chauvinism is necessary for societal coherence.” (p. 169)

“Racism” is the wrong term for this attitude. I guess his term “cultural chauvinism” is accurate because it assumes a cultural superiority. But that doesn’t quite capture the animus. Anyway: If the problem is falling fertility, why worry about the culture that the fertile immigrants bring? It’s just possible that Last’s problem is not just with fertility.

Religion

Like Longman, Last is sad about the demise of religion in the “public square,” which reduces fertility. In this he reveals his apocalyptic Christian moorings:

Of all of the evolutions in twentieth-century America, the most consequential might be the exodus of religion from the public square.

Really. More consequential than civil rights, women’s rights, science, public health, militarism and Wall Street? And isn’t exodus a strong word for what’s happened? There’s only one reason to believe a moderate decline in religiosity is more important than anything else: Because God said so. Anyway, besides ending the War on Christmas, Last also wants us to give credit for births where it is due (to God).

America is the most demographically healthy industrialized nation; it is also the most religiously devout. This is not a coincidence. … There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy. That said, it is important we preserve the role of religion in our public square, resisting those critics who see theocracy lurking behind every corner. Our government should be welcoming of, not hostile to, believers—if for no other reason than they’re the ones who create most of the future taxpayers. After all, there are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby. (Curiosity, vanity, and naïveté all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to.

I guess that means atheists don’t have a good reason to have more than one child. (Are there multiple-child atheists out there to respond to this?) Anyway, it’s usually not a good sign when an author follows “There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy,” with, “That said…”

Transportation

We can see the depth of Last’s commitment to the long term in his discussion of transportation. One reason New Englanders and other liberals don’t have enough children, he believes, is because land is too expensive where they live. So they have small houses and long commutes, which aren’t conducive to child-rearing.

The answer is not more public transportation. Light rail might work for the child-free. (Or it might not; there is a stark divide in the literature on mass transit.) But parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide; they cannot easily drop a child at a babysitter or school, then take a train to work, then train home, and then fetch the child. (If you don’t believe me, you try it.) The solution is building more roads.

That’s our destiny? A more efficient suburban sprawl to nurture our larger families? Doesn’t he care about climate change? Maybe, maybe not. He writes in a footnote:

The only environmentalist concern that population [growth] might legitimately affect is climate change, a subject so fraught with theological division that I’ll leave it be.

What courage, refusing to genuflect the climate-change authorities like that. And yet what cowardice to refuse to take a position in the face of “theological division.” That’s some combination.

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Is low fertility America’s problem?

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

cohen_americababy_post.jpg

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

An essay by Jonathan Last in the Wall Street Journal is getting some people talking about fertility. He writes about the United States, “The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.”

The essay doesn’t actually provide any specific problems caused by low fertility. Supporting retired people is the most obvious challenge. But the closest Last comes to describing the actual consequences of low fertility for the U.S. is this, which is based on the experiences of other countries:

Low-fertility societies don’t innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don’t invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.

I wouldn’t put these vague issues at the top of the list of America’s problems, but they are worth considering. Rather than try to increase birth rates, I would rather focus on making things work with fewer children, which might have the positive side effect of improving the lives of children. It’s a good conversation to have.

But there are three problems with the piece I’ll mention:

1. Fertility in the U.S. isn’t falling much.

The total fertility rate (births per average woman in her lifetime) is about what it was three decades ago. The scary drop over the last several years is apparently due to the recession and looks like it’s bottoming out. (In fact, as recently as 2009 I could write, quite reasonably, of the “unmistakable trend” toward higher fertility — look at the increase from 1976 to 2008.)

UStfr70-11

2. U.S. fertility is still pretty high

The U.S. has the highest fertility among major rich countries. Many of the countries above the U.S. on the following list have tried hard to get their populations to have more children, for some of the reasons Land suggests. It mostly doesn’t work. Here are the 2012 total fertility rates for a range of countries, from CIA estimates. I don’t think I missed any rich countries with higher fertility than the U.S.

tfrscompared

3. The one-child policy didn’t cause China’s low fertility rate

This is Last’s dramatic introduction:

For more than three decades, Chinese women have been subjected to their country’s brutal one-child policy. Those who try to have more children have been subjected to fines and forced abortions. Their houses have been razed and their husbands fired from their jobs. As a result, Chinese women have a fertility rate of 1.54. Here in America, white, college-educated women—a good proxy for the middle class—have a fertility rate of 1.6. America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves.

But this contributes to the unfortunate impression that birth rates primarily respond to government policies. Except in draconian cases (which does include many aspects of the one-child policy), that’s not the issue: Fertility is mostly about economics and culture.

Here’s China’s total fertility rate, as estimated by the World Bank:

chinatfr61-12

China’s fertility dropped in the 1960s and 1970s mostly because child mortality plummeted, women’s educational and employment opportunities improved, children’s labor became less important for survival, and because of urbanization. It is true that fertility has continued to fall under the one-child policy — and the drop from 2.5 to 1.5 is in some ways more dramatic than falling from 4.5 to 2.5. But as UNC demographer Yong Cai has shown, today, even when fertility restrictions are lifted fertility rates don’t rise. People have few children in China today because children have become too expensive — good schools especially cost too much, and the health care burdens of children outweigh the hoped-for future return of a child to care for parents when they’re retired.

With all that said, I like a few of Last’s policy suggestions, which include reducing tax burden for people who have children; and improving transportation infrastructure (he says highways specifically, but this is the Wall St. Journal) and telecommuting options so that people can live in lower-cost areas while working in expensive cities. I don’t think this would have much impact on fertility, though.

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When regular old mothers aren’t old-enough looking

As I wrote about the older-birth-mothers issue recently (first, and then), I didn’t comment on the photo illustrations people are using with the stories. But when an alert reader sent this one to me, from Katie Roiphe’s post in Slate, I couldn’t help it:

roiphe-stock-pageSomething about that picture and “women in their late 30s or 40s” rubbed my correspondent the wrong way, or rather, led her to write, “Late 30s or early 40s?!?”

Since this was from a legit website that credits its stock agency, I was able to visit Thinkstock and search for the photo. Sure enough:

roiphe-stockOf course, it’s not news, so the title “Middle-aged woman holding her newborn grandson” doesn’t make it a less true illustration of the older-mother phenomenon than one captioned “Desperate aging woman clings to feminist myth that it’s OK to delay childbearing.” But it gives you an idea of what the Slate editor was looking for in the stock photo.

I looked around a little, and found one other funny one. Another Slate essay, this one by Allison Benedikt, was reprinted in Canada’s National Post, and they laid it out like this:

nationalpost-grayest

When I visited the Getty Images site, I discovered this picture was taken in China. Here’s how it’s presented:

nationalpost-grayest-stock

This one, which is a picture of real people, looks like it could be a grandmother, or maybe more likely a caretaker. Regardless, it’s sold as an illustration of a story about China’s elderly having too few grandchildren to take care of them, which is vaguely related to the content of the story, but that’s not what the Post’s caption points to:

It’s true that older parents are more established and experienced but many of those experiences are, from a genetic point of view, negative, says Allison Benedikt.

Anyway, there were others where the women looked pretty old for the story, but I couldn’t find them in the catalogs, so I stopped.

This is all relevant to one of my critiques of these stories, which is that they make it seem like having children at older ages has become more common than it was in the past. That’s true compared with 1980, but not 1960. The difference is it’s more likely to be their first child nowadays. So Benedikt is way off when she writes,

Remember how there was that one kid in your high school class whose parents weresooooo old that it was weird and creepy? That’s all of us now. Oops.

As I showed, 40-year-old women are less likely to have children now than they were when she was a kid. And when Roiphe writes of the “50-year-old mother in the kindergarten class [who] attracts a certain amount of catty interest and disapproval,” she should be aware that the disapproval – which I don’t doubt exists – is not about the increased frequency of older mothers, but about how people think about them.

I guess any of these stories could also have been illustrated with my own photo, from Taiwan, which I used to illustrate a post about low fertility rates — implying this presumed grandmother was happy because she at least has a grandchild. (You’re welcome to use the picture for that purpose, free clip-art searchers of the future, but please don’t describe it was a birth mother and her child.)

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Births to mothers in their forties are less common now than in the old days

In my post the other day I suggested that, when it comes to children’s health, mothers’ health is a bigger issue than mothers’ (advancing) age when they give birth. I was motivated to post it by the widespread discussion of Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New Republic, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society” — discussion that has continued with today’s On Point (which I haven’t heard yet), including the author Elizabeth Gregory, who has written Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (which I haven’t read yet).

In the comments, several people (Reeve Vannamen and relfal) brought up the issue of later births in the olden days (before 1970). We need to think about two different issues: having first children at a later age, and having any (or many) children at a later age. For some questions of children’s health – especially the sperm-mutation issue with autism – I don’t think it matters: an older-age birth is an older age birth. The same goes for the angst over whether children will know their grandparents, whether parents will be too old to take them to soccer practice, and so on.

On the other hand, “starting a family” at an older age (because, remember, it’s not a “family” until you have kids), is a different issue, with its own implications for total fertility rates, the age composition of the population, etc.

Both having any children and having first children at older ages have been increasing in recent decades, but having any children at older ages is not historically unprecedented. Here are the birth rates for women ages 40-44, from 1940 to 2011, along with the percentage of all children born to those women from 1960-2010:

maternal-age-40-11

Sources: Birth rates 1940-1969, 1970-2010, 2011; Percent of births 1960-1980, 1980-2008.

Birth rates to women ages 40-44 are still substantially lower than they were in the olden days. So the number of kids whose parents will be over 60 when the kids come back to live with them after college is lower now despite an increase for 30 years.

On the other hand, the percentage of kids born to older mothers has surpassed those rates, because these are more often first or second, rather than third or fourth or fifth children. Put another way, the chance that women will have their first, and possibly only, baby at an older age has increased since 1960. While the overall birth rate for older women is still lower than it was in 1960, the first-birth rate is much higher. Here is the birth rate among women with no previous births, for those aged 35, 40 and 45, from 1960 to 2005:

first birth rates 60-05

Source: Table 4 on this page.

In 1960, only 4% of women who reached age 35 without having a baby had one that year. They probably weren’t just delaying their childbearing intentionally or putting off finding a mate while they pursued their careers. On the other hand, by 2005 almost 9% of those who reached age 35 without having a baby had one that year. The late first birth has become much more common.

Now if you go back to the promo blurb for On Point, you see how the issues are jumbled together:

American parents are having kids old and older. Look around. Are those two that child’s parents? Or its grandparents? It is very often hard to know these days. In many ways, this has been liberating. Twenty-somethings with a child-free, diaper-free decade of youth. People with time and space to start careers. But there is a price, and it’s becoming clearer. Older parents juggling kid’s soccer and their own aches and pains. Kids who won’t know their grandparents. Parents who won’t know their grandkids. And a baby bust.

The hardships faced by older parents are nothing new, but parents used to have more kids around when they went through them. It’s good to keep an eye on the issues separately.

Note: there is some more background and analysis in my working paper: here.

 

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Poverty Poses a Bigger Risk to Pregnancy Than Age

Originally published in TheAtlantic.com.

The problem of income inequality often gets forgotten in conversations about biological clocks.

The dilemma that couples face as they consider having children at older ages is worth dwelling on, and I wouldn’t take that away from Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New Republic, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” which has sparked commentary from Katie Roiphe,Hanna RosinRoss Douthat, and Parade, among many others.
The story is an old one—about the health risks of older parenting and the implications of falling fertility rates for an aging population—even though some of the facts are new. But two points need more attention. First, the overall consequences of the trend toward older parenting are on balance positive, both for women’s equality and for children’s health. And second, social-class inequality is a pressing—and growing—problem in children’s health, and one that is too easily lost in the biological-clock debate.

Older mothers

First, we need to distinguish between the average age of birth parents on the one hand versus the number born at advanced parental ages on the other. As Shulevitz notes, the average age of a first-time mother in the U.S. is now 25. Health-wise, assuming she births the rest of her (small) brood before about age 35, that’s perfect.

Consider two measures of child well-being according to their mothers’ age at birth. First, infant mortality:

cohen_infantmortality.pngSource: Centers for Disease Control.

Health prospects for children improve as women (and their partners) increase their education and incomes, and improve their health behaviors, into their 30s. Beyond that, the health risks start accumulating, weighing against the socioeconomic factors, and the danger increases.

Second, here is the rate of cognitive disability among children according to the age of their mothers at birth, showing a very similar pattern:

cohen_infantmortality2.pngSource: Calculations made for my working paper, available here. To match up children with their birth parents in the Census, I had to limit the sample to children living with two married parents, where both are in their first marriage, so it’s a pretty select group.

Again, the lowest risks are to those born when their parents are in their early 30s, a pattern that holds when I control for education, income, race/ethnicity, gender, and child’s age.

When mothers older than age 40 give birth, which accounted for 3 percent of births in 2011, the risks clearly are increased, and Shulevitz’s story is highly relevant. But, at least in terms of mortality and cognitive disability, an average parental age in the late 20s and early 30s is not only not a problem, it’s ideal.

Unequal health

But the second figure above hints at another problem—inequality in the health of parents and children. On that purple chart, a college graduate in her early 40s has the same risk as a non-graduate in her late 20s. And the social-class gap increases with age. Why is the rate of cognitive disabilities so much higher for the children of older mothers who did not finish college? It’s not because of their biological clocks or genetic mutations, but because of the health of the women giving birth.

For healthy, wealthy older women, the issue of aging eggs and genetic mutations from fathers’ run-down sperm factories is more pressing than it is for the majority of parents, who have not graduated college.

If you look at the distribution of women having babies by age and education, it’s clear that the older-parent phenomenon is disproportionately about more-educated women. (I calculated these from the American Community Survey, because age-by-education is not available in the CDC numbers, so they are a little different.)

cohen_infantmortality3.pngMost of the less-educated mothers are giving birth in their 20s, and a bigger share of the high-age births are to women who’ve graduated college—most of them married and financially better off. But women without college degrees still make up more than half of those having babies after age 35, and the risks their children face have more to do with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and other health conditions than with genetic or epigenetic mutations. Preterm births, low birth-weight and birth complications are major causes of developmental disabilities, and they occur most often among mothers with their own health problems.

Most distressing, the effects of educational (and income) inequality on children’s health have been increasing. Here are the relative odds of infant mortality by maternal education, from 1986 to 2001, from a study in Pediatrics. (This compares the odds to college graduates within each year, so anything over 1.0 means the group has a higher risk than college graduates.)

cohen_infantmortality4.pngThis inequality is absent from Shulevitz’s essay and most of the commentary about it. She writes, of the social pressure mothers like her feel as they age, “Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children”—with no consideration of the 66 percent of people who have reached their early 30s with less than a four-year college degree. For the vast majority of that group, the sequence Shulevitz describes is not relevant.

In fact, if Shulevitz had considered economic inequality, she might not have been quite as worried about advancing parental age. When she worries that a 35-year-old mother has a life expectancy of just 46 more years—years to be a mother to her child—the table she consulted applies to the whole population. She should breathe a little bit easier: Among 40-year-old white college graduateswomen are expected to live an average extra five years compared with those who have a high school education only.

When it comes to parents’ age versus social class, the challenges are not either/or. We should be concerned about both. But addressing the health problems of parents—especially mothers—with less than a college degree and below-average incomes is the more pressing issue—both for potential lives saved or improved and for social equality.

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