This post originally appeared in the Newton blog at RealClearScience.
In 2011 -- the latest year with available data -- the U.S. fertility rate dropped to 1.9 births per woman, below the replacement rate of 2.1 births. That same year, the cost to raise a child through age 17 climbed to the highest ever, an estimated $234,900 for a middle class family! That's a 22.5% increase over the inflation-adjusted cost in 1960: $191,723. Are the two statistics linked? Let's explore.
Over the past sixty years, the global birth rate has steadily declined with clockwork consistency. This is particularly evident in the WEIRD World, comprising societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
"Now that my own children are teenagers and I work in a university in a large city, I can go for weeks without properly interacting with a child," anthropologist Ruth Mace noted in a recent editorial in Nature. Mace is a professor at University College London in the United Kingdom.
Demographers have long wrangled with the reasons for the decline. With some imperfect cataloging, the many, diverse reasons can be grouped into three categories: mortality and extrinsic risk, which includes sub-factors like the safety of childbirth and public health;cultural norms, including age of marriage, religious beliefs, and family structure; and economic costs and benefits, with contributing elements like the poverty rate, cost of living, and the cost of raising a child.
"Demographers have traditionally placed great emphasis on the reduction in mortality as the main cause of the reproductive decline..." Mace writes, "but its failure to predict all aspects of the phenomenon led some researchers to propose the cultural influence... as a major determinant."
A great place to study the trend of declining fertility is Bangladesh. Bordered by Burma to the east and India to the West, situated on the Indian Ocean, the country currently has a population of 150 million. In 1980, the fertility rate was fecund, to say the least. Each Bangladeshi woman had six children over her lifetime. But as of 2011, that rate has plummeted to 2.2!
University of Missouri anthropologist Mary Shenk has been spending a lot of time in rural Bangladesh recently, attempting to discern why the birth rate in the country is in free-fall. Is the massive decrease due to reduced mortality, evolving cultural norms, economic reasons, or a combination of the three? Shenk described her team's findings in research published April 29th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Interviewing a large sample of 1,000 women, Shenk determined that the decline in fertility "is best explained by models emphasizing economic factors and related motivations for parental investment." In other words, the costs associated with raising children weighed most prominently in childbearing decisions of Bangladeshi women.
However, Shenk stresses the interrelatedness between all of the factors. For example, education is both an economic and cultural element, and influences not only earning potential but also one's knowledge of costs, as well as one's ability to plan for the future.
The cost of raising a child may factor in to declining fertility in the developing world, but does this new finding translate to the WEIRD world, particularly the United States? Possibly. With the economy still not fully recovered, the cost of college education rising, and more women entering the workforce, the cost of raising a child looms more ominously than it used to. And now that U.S. fertility is officially below replacement, an interesting conundrum has become starkly highlighted.
"The reproductive decisions of those of us with small families do not seem to maximize our genetic fitness, despite the numerous financial, health-related, educational and other individual benefits associated with low fertility," Mace observes.