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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Do Large Families Hold the Key to Reversing Birth Rates?

In her new book Hannah’s Children, economist Catherine Pakaluk says yes.

A,Large,Family,Of,Six,People,Walk,On,The,Floor

We are no longer a nation that thinks much about posterity. Which is why the words of “Hannah,” the pseudonym for a Jewish mother of seven whose story animates Catherine Pakaluk’s new book Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, are so striking: “Children are this key to infinity,” she says. The decision to have a child is not about personal fulfillment, nor is it a sacrifice that comes with a lot of pity points. It is a choice to participate in the eternal story of one’s family line.

This is not the modern American approach to childbearing. But with birth rates plummeting well below the 2.1 required to replace our native population, Pakaluk, an economics professor at the Catholic University of America and a mother of eight children herself, wants to know if we can learn something by looking at the women who do still choose to have children, and lots of them. 

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The reasons for the “birth dearth” are extensive as they are well known, and Pakaluk is not shy to name them. A combination of the marketization of the household economy, in which women now compete with men in public for jobs and prestige rather than collaborating with them in private, as well as the birth control Pill and it’s attendant new normal of fertility “switched off,” make women who choose to have two or more children an anomaly. Pakaluk explains the birth dearth in economic terms as “a decrease in the demand for children, followed by an increase in the opportunity cost of having children.” Social Security and Medicare mean the benefits of children in later life are largely unnecessary; public funds will pay someone to do every job your son or grandson might have once done. Meanwhile, the status costs to women make having children much more expensive than previously. 

Most agree that the factors pulling women away from childbearing are strong. But there is much disagreement over how, and indeed whether, these incentives may be reversed. Pakaluk argues the answer may be found in studying the cohort at the opposite end of the spectrum: mothers of five or more children, particularly those who chose that large number, rather than arriving there by accident. Hannah’s Children is a synthesis of Pakaluk’s study of exactly that cohort. Interviewing 55 women from diverse regions of the United States, income levels, and career paths, she attempts to understand qualitatively the drive which leads some mothers to have large families despite numerous economic and social incentives otherwise. 

What she finds is exactly what you might expect. While they are unusual, Pakaluk’s women are not irrational. Each describes making her choice to have subsequent children by weighing costs and benefits, just like any other woman. What is different about these women is that their view of costs and benefits is far broader than the average American female of childbearing age. Where most women considering children weigh loss of prestige and salary against sleepless nights and spit up, the large-family mothers weigh the same losses against a child’s eternal value, the priceless joy of watching each new person develop, the opportunity for the mother to grow in spiritual maturity, and a sense that identity is found not in preserving the self, but in laying it down for others. The calculus for having children is entirely different for these women.

For most, this difference is due to religion, mostly Christianity, Judaism, and Mormonism. But Pakaluk is keen to note the difference between irrational choices and super-rational ones: To be motivated by religion is not to reject reason, but to account for purposes outside its scope.

These super-rational motivations make high fertility rates impossible to replicate through government subsidies, in Pakaluk’s estimation. As her own study shows, the grit and determination required to overcome the social and economic pressures against high fertility can only come from a determination which far outweighs budgeting spreadsheets, five-year plans, and even, Pakaluk acknowledges, the entire trajectory of female education as it currently exists in the United States. (“Can we incentivize moving away from careers and interests we’ve prepared women to fulfill from their earliest school days?”) Pakaluk describes motherhood of large families as a “path of profound self-denial lasting at least two decades,” and concludes, reasonably, “That such a costly choice could be induced directly though any external benefit seems fantastical.” You cannot turn a one-child mom into a seven-child mom through simple subsidies, as China is quickly discovering

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The state cannot save the American family, she concludes, and instead should give religion a freer reign to try: “Without religious formation that fosters biblical values, low birth rate trends will not be reversed.” True. But why not both religion and subsidy?

It is here that the argument from women with five or more children becomes less useful. The women defying the birth dearth are women of extraordinary determination, almost all motivated by their deeply held religious beliefs. They are remarkable outliers, and no less so even to a reader like me, who has known several of the same in my personal life. This makes their stories captivating to behold, as Pakaluk masterfully weaves together narrative, analysis, and policy prescriptions from that analysis. But it also makes them something very different from the majority of mothers in the United States today. 

The best selling personal finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki attempted a similar feat to Pakaluk’s. Kiyosaki contrasted the lives and choices of the upper crust of earners, the “Rich Dad,” with those of the typical middle-class or lower income earner, or “Poor Dad.” Kiyosaki argues that to become a Rich Dad, men need to mimic certain Rich Dad behaviors. The idea is enticing—Kiyosaki’s book is a bestseller in numerous languages—but how many Americans have become wealthy by the same measures is another question. It seems probable that those who do are the same who would have succeeded regardless. The same question may be posed for the birth dearth: The women with whom Pakaluk’s book resonates are likely also predisposed to have large families. 

At the statistical level, it doesn’t much matter what the outliers do. As demographer Lyman Stone has pointed out, the number of these women having large families is so small that even were it to double, the total fertility rate of the United States would hardly budge. A much more effective needle to move would be from two children to three children. This is a sizable cohort: When doubled, it would put the United States total fertility just under replacement rates, a massive improvement from our current 1.64 total fertility rate. Notably, for several of Pakaluk’s interview subjects, the jump from two children to three children was the hardest; somewhere after three, the fixed opportunity costs for having children seemed to give way to smaller, more variable costs. This is because a variation on one’s former lifestyle may be maintained with two kids in a way it cannot with three or four; once the illusions of retaining status and editorial control have been stripped away, another child is no great change. It would stand to reason, then, that getting two child mothers to become three child mothers, a goal much more within the reach of a subsidy, would go much further for national birth rates. It might even spur some three-child parents into four-child parents in the process. 

Despite her pessimism toward pronatalist policy measures, however, Pakaluk herself hints at a different, insightful solution to low birth rates in her discussion of why children are no longer economically valuable. “Modern old-age programs that do not tie benefits to childbearing suppress the economic value of children to the household,” Pakaluk writes. Here is a solution within a problem, and Pakaluk sees it. Though she does not elaborate, one can imagine Social Security payments stair stepped according to family size, with married parents to large families at the top, as just one possibility. To use the arm of the state to reinforce the natural connection between children and security in old age, rather than severing natural family relations as our policy has for decades, would strike a blow not just to low birth rates, but to the politicized household and atomization, too.

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