The Wall Street Journal ran a story on May 26 noting that “The U.S. birth rate is down sharply from 15 years ago, as women report that economic and social obstacles are causing them to have fewer children than they want.”
The reasons cited in the piece focused on the material: the inability to afford a house while repaying student loans, men lacking earning power compared to the female cohort, and women being better educated than men. And the teen birth rate has dropped 78% since its peak in 1991 due to greater access to contraception.
But a low birth rate has significant negative implications for national viability – not only does a low birth rate jeopardize pension systems such as Social Security, but it’s also a drag on the economy. The article cited President Joe Biden as proposing paid family leave, subsidized child care, and federally funded preschool as ways to convince people to have more children.
Yet looking to the states, there are massive differences in the birth rate among women 15 to 44 years in 2021. Women in No. 1 South Dakota bore almost 53% more babies per capita than their peers in last place Vermont.
What explains the difference? Biden and much of the left would offer a material explanation: women don’t have children because they can’t afford to and they can’t find child care.
But a national ranking of child care that compares cost as a share of income, availability and quality finds a modestly negative correlation to child care: of the seven states with the lowest natality, six of them are in the top 10 best states for child care.
Similarly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Personal Income, a measure of income that looks at a state’s cost of living, shows no meaningful statistical connection to the birth rate, with the trendline slightly negative – meaning those states with higher income have slightly lower birth rates.
There are, however, three factors that statistically predict higher birth rates: a state’s cost of living (a lower cost of living associated with a higher birth rate); the share of residents who seldom or never attend religious services (with a lower connection to organized religion associated with lower birth rates); and the 2020 vote for Joe Biden (with states that gave Biden the largest share having the lowest birth rates). Of all the factors, the vote for Biden was the strongest predictor of a low birth rate.
Of course, with statistics we always have to be cautious about linking correlation to causation.
That said, it is fascinating to consider the focus on material things among many policymakers. Birth rate too low? Subsidize having babies and support parents while they have young children. Yet this, as with all government programs, comes at a cost that must be paid in higher taxes, greater deficit spending (that must be paid back eventually), or a combination of both.
Alternatively, states with a low cost of living are largely those with a red state governance model – states with a light regulatory touch and low taxes. Relatedly, the cost of living in a state is mostly determined by the cost of housing while the cost of housing is significantly affected by restrictive land use regulations.
Further, Americans who look to government to help them tend not to have many children. This stands in contrast to Americans who take personal responsibility or look for support from their families and their congregations.
This latter fact – and it is a fact – that faith, a conservative mindset, and a low cost of living found mainly in red states are associated with family formation, confounds many politicians. Far better for them that they can propose policies formulated by their staffs and allied special interest groups, run for office with a promise to enact those policies, and – when they don’t work as advertised – demand more spending on those government programs while demonizing any opposition that dare question their effectiveness.
The solution to higher, societally healthier birth rates appears not to involve much government at all.