Government Intervention

Government Can't Fix America's Baby Bust

The obstacles to having more babies can't be moved by tax incentives or subsidized child care.


Is the American family doomed?

Fewer than half of U.S. adults are married. The nation's fertility rate has fallen below replacement level. The percentage of children living with married parents has fallen drastically. There's no denying the trend lines.

That trajectory has spawned a public panic that sometimes verges on the apocalyptic, along with a related discussion about how best to use money and power to reverse course. Journalists, sociologists, and public intellectuals, most but not all of them right-of-center politically, have called for everything from tax credits to tariffs to transformations of the American welfare system in hopes of changing the way Americans conceptualize and form families.

But the declinist narrative doesn't tell the whole story—and the calls for big, centralized solutions misunderstand the issues at hand. The relevant obstacles to more marriages, more babies, and more stable families can't be moved by tax incentives, marriage promotion campaigns, or federally subsidized day care.

Four new books about American families—written by people with different politics, different professional backgrounds, and 24 kids between them—make a compelling case that the American family needs a course correction. But that correction won't come from any of the typical pro-marriage or pro-natalist policy prescriptions.

If it comes, the change will be the result of a ground-up transformation: a cultural paradigm in which family formation is understood as an individual choice but not a lonely one, and in which distributed cultural support provides what a top-down program handed down from Washington cannot.

What the American family needs is a vibe shift.

Get Married, Get Happy?

Marriage is still the norm in America, but it is declining.

In 1990, 67 percent of the country's adults were married and 71 percent had been married at some point. By 2019, those percentages had dropped to 53 and 62 percent, respectively. The number who lived unmarried with a romantic partner grew from 4 percent to 9 percent.

That drop in the marriage rate alarms Brad Wilcox, a sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. In Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, Wilcox argues that many people would be better off married, especially where kids are involved.

Wilcox doesn't think that everyone should be wed, nor that every marriage is worth saving. But married people, he notes, have higher median household incomes than unmarried counterparts and more assets at retirement. On average, they raise more well-adjusted children. And in recent surveys, the married-with-children set scores high above single, child-free folks on various measures of life satisfaction—a shift from previous survey evidence. For instance, a 2021 study from the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute found that 82 percent of parents aged 18–55 said they were "pretty happy" or "very happy," compared to 68 percent of people without kids.

"It may be in part that happier people today are more likely to have children—what scholars call the selection effect," writes Wilcox. "But it is clearly no longer the case that parents are more miserable than their childless peers."

Wilcox suggests we could have more happily married couples if more people rejected certain marriage myths common today—for instance, the idea of "soulmates." The soulmate concept skips over the daily work of marriage, implying that making marriage work is merely a matter of finding the "right" person with whom one's soul is cosmically aligned. This can lead to disappointment—and divorce—when couples realize a relationship won't always be as easy or thrilling as it once was.

Get Married may be onto something when it criticizes the ways pop culture and media mislead about romance. But Wilcox also pins much of the blame for marriage's decline on "elites"—well-off, college-educated, largely left-leaning urban and suburban professionals who, he argues, personally practice a mostly conventional form of stable, successful marriage that they don't preach to the working class.

It's true that wealthier and college-educated people are now more likely than lower-income and lower-education people to marry before they have children and to stay married afterward. "College-educated parents' risk of divorce has fallen by about 25 percent since the 1970s, and almost 90 percent of their children are being raised in married, largely intact families today," writes Wilcox, who chastises these groups for "walking right but talking left" on marriage.

But the people most likely to encounter screeds against marriage and children, praise of polyamory, and other "elite" discourse of the sort Wilcox decries are the very classes most likely to be having stable marriages and families. Surely the marriage gap has more to do with norms within communities, as well as the particular circumstances and stressors associated with economic precarity, than with working-class Americans taking their cues from open-marriage memoirs and New York Times op-eds. Wilcox's repeated jabs at elites read more like partisan attempts to cast left-leaning professionals as villains than like useful diagnoses of the practical struggles facing contemporary American relationships.

Check Your Two-Parent Privilege

Melissa Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland, is also worried about marriage rates—specifically, the effect they're having on children.

In The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, Kearney notes that kids who grow up without two parents at home have higher rates of behavioral problems and more run-ins with the law. They're less likely to graduate from high school or to get a college degree. Their adult earnings are lower.

Having two parents is the ultimate privilege, Kearney suggests. It confers benefits but is disproportionately associated with upper- and middle-class parents and increasingly foreign to kids whose parents have less education and money—thereby perpetuating generation-spanning inequality.

In 2019, just 63 percent of U.S. children lived with married parents, down from 77 percent in 1980. But the shift has been far from equal across socioeconomic classes. For mothers with a college degree, the drop was just six percentage points, from an already high 90 percent in 1980. But for mothers without a college degree, the drop was 23 percentage points. Only 60 percent of kids whose moms have a high school but no college degree now live with married parents, and only 57 percent of kids whose moms have no high school degree do.

One obvious question this raises is how to encourage more people to marry before having children.

Evidence from decades of government-run marriage promotion programs suggests that they don't work. President George W. Bush's Healthy Marriage Initiative, which aimed to boost marriage rates through public advertising campaigns, relationship-skills education programs, and reducing disincentives to marriage in welfare programs, "did not meaningfully increase marital stability among participating couples," explains Kearney. Nor have government-run "responsible fatherhood" programs aimed at unmarried dads been able to boost in-person time with children, financial support to kids, or "meaningful improvements in measures of co-parenting or measures of the fathers' social-emotional and mental well-being."

In some corners, the response to class discrepancies in marriage rates is simple: Men aren't earning enough to be attractive as husbands. Wilcox nods to this idea in Get Married, bashing free trade for sending factory jobs overseas.

In this formulation, raising men's earnings should lead to more marriages and more two-parent families. But that hasn't happened.

Kearney writes that she too assumed that higher earnings for men should lead to more stable marriages and two-parent households. But then she tested that idea by looking at what happened in fracking boomtowns from 1997 to 2012. Male employment and wages rose in those areas, but there was no concurrent boost in marriages or cohabitation rates. Births increased, but the baby boom "occurred as much with unmarried parents as with married ones." She concludes that "in a time when an increasing share of kids are born to unmarried parents, there may be no going back—at least not through economic changes alone."

Despite the positive correlations between two-parent families and outcomes for children, it's not even clear whether more marriages would actually change outcomes for many kids. Many single parents would probably benefit from an extra income or another set of hands. But Kearney's research casts doubt on the idea that this would be some sort of universal boost.

In a study with Wellesley College economist Phillip Levine, Kearney found that the returns on marriage differed for kids whose mothers had differing education levels. "The potential resource gain from marriage is not sufficient at the low end, and is unnecessary at the high end," writes Kearney of the study. "Increased rates of marriage among unmarried parents might be beneficial to children in some instances, but likely not all."

Industrial policy, higher wages and breadwinner jobs for men, and various pro-marriage initiatives have all foundered. For those concerned about the breakdown of marriage and families, there's little evidence to support any straightforward policy intervention.

Defying the Birth Dearth

Yet some people do have lots of kids, intentionally and in wedlock. And recently, the number seems to be holding. Although the percentage of U.S. women with five or more kids fell from 20 percent in 1976 to 5 percent in 1990, it has remained relatively flat in the nearly 35 years since.

What can be learned from these fonts of fecundity?

In Hannah's Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, Catherine Pakaluk, a mother of eight who teaches at Catholic University of America's business school, interviews 55 women who have given birth to at least five children apiece. "I undertook this research convinced that the study of high birth rates could shed light on the problem of low ones," she writes. To be part of the study, the mothers had to be college-educated, because Pakaluk "wanted to know what it looked like to face the 'new calculus' of childbearing with the difficult trade-offs between work and family and still choose to have several children."

Pakaluk's subjects drive home the idea that economic enticements aren't enough to induce people to have (more) children. The most salient costs of having kids—especially lots of kids—are not monetary.

What weighed most heavily on these women was giving up other things or putting them on hold: professional ambitions, a social identity tied to one's work, time for hobbies or creative pursuits.

"Their narratives taught us that falling birth rates are not a cost problem, at least not the way we normally think about a cost problem," writes Pakaluk. "The relevant obstacle to choosing a child, they said, was the cost of missing out on the other things you could have done with your time, your money, or your life."

In other words, the real price is about opportunity costs. While "the opportunity cost of having a child increased sharply with women's expanded education and professional work," Pakaluk observes, "there was no corresponding increase to the value of having a child." Is it any wonder that birth rates have fallen?

This calculus makes birth rates "very difficult to reverse using the standard policy levers," writes Pakaluk, noting that her subjects' stories "sorely challenge family policy prescriptions, particularly pro-natalist policies. Cash incentives and tax relief won't persuade people to give up their lives. People will do that for God, for their families, and for their future children." Having children—and especially having a lot of children—is fundamentally a private, personal commitment.

In a culture trending less religious, fewer people will find God an acceptable arbiter of their family size. Notably, Pakaluk writes that although 100 percent of her sample was religious, big families here weren't founded on religious objections to birth control. If birth rates are to rise, more people must want kids or a big family for their own sakes.

Kids might be understood as experience goods—goods "whose total costs and benefits cannot be fully assessed in advance," as Pakaluk puts it. This makes it hard for those without them to know what they're missing.

Moreover, highly educated professional women spend many years working toward other goals. "Each year that they enjoy their studies, training, or work reinforces the value determination that having a child will mean giving up things they know and love, for an unknown quantity." To have a big family, women typically have to start having kids early. Pakaluk concludes that "if you want to nudge people into having more kids, it's going to be a lot harder to nudge them into the first or second child than the fourth or fifth."

Family Unfriendly

What will it take to convince people to have that first or second child? Not typical pro-natalist policies, agrees Timothy P. Carney. Instead, American life needs a more holistic family-friendly overhaul.

Carney—a father of six, Washington Examiner columnist, and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute—aims to convince people that having a big brood is not only doable but great, so long as you can avoid some of the traps of modern parenting. His prescriptions are aimed both at making life easier and better for existing families and encouraging younger couples to start having kids sooner.

Generally, pro-natalism involves either a litany of new government programs and incentives or relies on guilt-tripping women about not having babies in sufficient quantities to help their homeland. But Carney's book Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be is refreshingly different, dismissing most of the typical pro-natalist policy agenda as ineffective. "Ultimately, government spending can spur only modest increases in birthrates," he writes.

Yes, he favors child tax credits, calling them "a fairness measure," acknowledging "that a family of five…needs more money than a single free agent." But mostly he argues for smaller changes, some cultural and some policy-oriented.

Carney wants walkable neighborhoods ("if you want fecundity in the sheets, you need walkability in the streets"), fewer housing regulations, and fewer freakouts over kids going outside alone. Parents, he warns, are plagued by "excessive fear" and the idea that we must hone kids "into high achievers at a young age." Today's "maximum-effort, high-anxiety, low-trust parenting"—with its poor risk assessment, excessive focus on our kids' futures at the expense of their present happiness, and insistence that children need pricey and time-consuming enrichment activities and/or constant parental attention—"is a cultural pathology that has massive consequences." That attitude has convinced too many people that they should have few or no kids. And it's made many modern families miserable.

"Someone has convinced us that parenting should involve much more effort than any generation before us put in. That is madness," writes Carney, who also offers this gem: "Raising kids is a bit like smoking pork shoulder: it's not going to be quick, and you do need to check the thermometer from time to time, but you'll get the best outcome if you avoid constantly lifting the lid and prodding the meat."

Against One-Size-Fits-All Solutions

The family panic is driven by a narrative of decline and disarray. But there is another way to view shifts in family formation—one where much of what is happening is actually good news. Americans today are marrying and procreating, or not, on their own terms. This, in turn, is leading to happier relationships, happier families, and more fulfilling lives all around.

In this largely celebratory tale, the happy facade of the baby boom masked miserable marriages, desperate housewives, and unfulfilled aspirations. Then the loosening of laws and taboos around divorce and working women allowed many people to leave unhappy situations behind. When today's Americans decide to marry and have kids—not always in that order, and without one always implying the other—it's for the right reasons, rather than a feeling that it's obligatory.

This has led to stronger marriages, and alternative arrangements—including couples happily co-parenting without tying the knot—that are just as good. And while Americans are having fewer children, they're investing more in the ones we do have: quality over quantity. Single parenting may have reached an equilibrium, holding stable since 2009 after rising for decades. Divorce rates are down about 40 percent from 1980.

This story may be too simplistically upbeat. But it's correct that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to thriving.

Any reading of the data to suggest that family formation alone makes people happier, healthier, and wealthier suffers from serious flaws.

Remember Wilcox's selection effect, in which he acknowledges that many parents might be happier because happier people choose to have kids? That's no minor point. It basically undermines any case for marriage that rests on statistical measures of personal well-being.

Maybe married people are richer and more fulfilled because they're married—or maybe they're married because they're richer and more fulfilled. Most likely, it's a constellation of factors. But the fact that married people are on average happier does not mean everyone would be happier married.

Likewise, it's hard to detangle correlations from causes when it comes to the well-being of children raised in different family structures. Two-parent households differ from single–parent households in many ways, including the fact that they're more likely to have two incomes and, thus, less likely to be in poverty. It's impossible to know how much of the benefits that accrue to kids of two-parent households come largely from the marriage aspect, the financial aspect, or some convoluted combination of attributes.

This "doesn't mean family structure doesn't matter," writes Kearney. "Rather, it means that the reason that children from married-parent or two-parent homes tend to have better educational, economic, and social outcomes in life is because of something that two-parent homes are more readily able to provide for their children."

Pinpointing any single factor as determinative is nearly impossible. Two-parent households are also associated with more educated, older, and wealthier parents, which can mean everything from better schools to more books in the house, more nutritious food, and more money for enriching activities. Children of single parents are more likely to be black or Hispanic and less likely to live in safe neighborhoods. Marriage can be a proxy for religiosity. It may also be correlated with emotional stability, as well as other traits that could influence child outcomes. And let's not forget genetics—some heritable tendencies may make someone less likely to marry and also less likely to have offspring with traits that set them up for certain sorts of success. Marriage, or stable cohabitation, is a proxy for all sorts of other advantages, which means that even if it were somehow possible, simply marrying off single parents would go only so far.

But there are problems with the all-is-well narrative.

For instance, the idea that the rise in out-of-wedlock births stems largely from parents living and raising kids together in situations that approximate marriage in all but legal status. "Data show conclusively that parents are not cohabitating without marriage in a way that remotely accounts for the decrease in two-parent married households," writes Kearney.

Or take the idea that young people today are consciously rejecting marriage. To the contrary, nearly 70 percent of never-married 18- to 34-year-olds want to get hitched eventually, according to a February 2024 Pew Research Center survey. Only 8 percent say they definitely don't want to marry.

The idea of "quality over quantity" parenting also has some flaws. For one thing, the intensive style of parenting popular in recent decades hasn't seemed to produce happier parents or more "quality" kids.

"Overly ambitious parenting" may even be contributing to rising levels of anxiety and depression in young people, suggests Carney. One 2023 paper in The Journal of Pediatrics concluded that "a primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults." A 2016 Norwegian study found bigger households associated with better mental health outcomes in kids.

Besides, people still say they want more children than they are, on average, having. "Some of the shortfall can be explained by relationships, biology, and luck," writes Carney, but social factors are at play too, with many couples seeing "having a child, or another child, as simply too daunting." Of course, part of the discrepancy between average ideal and actual family sizes comes down to people changing their minds with age (there are myriad reasonable factors that may make a 20-year-old who wants four kids someday decide later that two is preferable, for instance). But this doesn't entirely excuse us from interrogating why people change their minds.

The idea that more money could solve these issues is also suspect. "Ultimately, the data shows there's only so much government and money can do," Carney concludes.

Backing up his theory that culture, not financial costs, are impeding birth rates, he notes that baby busts in the 1920s and the 2000s "started in the upper class and then spread to the middle class, and then to the poor. Trickling down from the upper class to the middle class and below is a feature not of economic need, but of cultural trends."

Research from Kearney and her colleagues also challenges the idea that financial factors have been the main driver of America's drop in births. The source of the trend, she argues, "is likely something more fundamental—a set of shifts in priorities and experiences across successive cohorts of young adults, as opposed to any readily identifiable economic or policy factor that discretely changed in the past 15 years."

Not the Best of Times—but Not the Worst of Times Either

Here's another story you can tell about the American family: There was no pinnacle. Every era has had its charms and its drawbacks. The present is neither the best of times nor the worst of times for family life.

A majority of adults still get married. When they do, they enter an institution that is more egalitarian, more inclusive, and more stable than it was 50 years ago. Perhaps as a result, today's marriages are less likely to result in divorce than they have been for decades. But many people who would like to marry are having trouble realizing that goal.

Married or single, parents are putting in more hours with their children than their parents' or grandparents' generation did. Some of this is surely unnecessary "helicopter parenting," but it also reflects that people like spending time with their kids and have the leisure time to do so.

Today's families face high home prices and less community-oriented neighborhoods. But they also have access to safer cars, budget travel, cheaper and more varied food, more entertainment options, and a standard of living of which similarly situated families a few generations ago could only have dreamed. Today's moms face plenty of unusual, perhaps impossible expectations—but they are also more likely to say they're happy than in decades past.

Overall, our society is a lot more tolerant of lifestyle pluralism. The relatively rare folks who want five or 10 children can still make it work, as Hannah's Children demonstrates.

People who opt out of marriage and/or children altogether won't be socially shunned. A big part of the drop in fertility rates comes from a big drop in births to teen moms. But American women still face both high levels of unintended pregnancies and high levels of infertility.

The American family is all right, but it could be better. The path to improvement runs through individuals, families, churches, schools, workplaces, and communities. Most of what we need isn't about policy at all, but about us—our choices, our mindsets, our tradeoffs.

For parents, this will often mean trying their best to do less: less worrying, less hovering, less micromanaging kids' schedules, and less judging other parents for not buying into an ethos of constant fear or excessive enrichment. At other times, parents will also need to do more—to promote fellowship and free-range play in their own communities, to encourage and support new or prospective parents, to help show today's young people that parents can live full lives. Even fuller lives.

For authorities, this means getting out of the way: deregulating the suburbs, allowing families more control over their children's educations, ending the petty investigations of parents who let their kids play at parks alone. It means local leaders thinking about neighborhoods, schools, and community activities with an eye toward walkability and sociability. It means businesses voluntarily doing more to support parents, like offering greater flexibility and better leave policies—not out of a spirit of sacrifice, but to retain talented people or attract workers in the first place.

For the chattering classes, it might mean taking these issues seriously. Authors of books like these are often met with vitriol when they raise alarm bells, as if they want to force all women to be old-school, stay-at-home tradwives or make people stay in miserable marriages. But the questions they're asking get at the heart of happiness, inequality, the future of humanity, and other weighty issues, and—as all of these writers make clear—there are ways to look at these questions that don't rely on ultra-conservative conceptions of family.

These sorts of small-scale, independently driven, community-centric changes aren't as appealingly grandiose as top-down collectivist schemes. They're not as politically advantageous as handing people stacks of cash. They're not as emotionally satisfying as simply blaming the other side. They're DIY solutions.

Even if these shifts come to pass, they might not produce a big marriage or baby boom. But they could make life a little better for the parents and children of today, helping to ease the panic that many Americans clearly feel. That's a good goal in its own right. The prospective parents of the future, those for whom the question of family formation isn't settled, might just look around and think: This is a world worth joining—and continuing.