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Fruitless Plains

Birth rates in America keep hitting historic lows. Single parenthood isn’t solving the problem.

Happy,Male,And,Female,Playing,With,Children,Outside
(Lucky Business/Shutterstock)

It’s a bad day for love. Plummeting marriage rates are just the tip of the iceberg; now, even those who marry are finding it difficult to conceive. In 2020, American families had an average of 1.8 children per family unit. It’s unclear how many of these children were conceived under natural circumstances, which is to say, how many were created without the aid of in vitro fertilization, sperm or egg donors, or surrogates. The number conceived naturally by married parents can only be even smaller. 

There are many ways to slice these statistics, but none of them disguises the fact that marriage and children, like anniversary jewelry, are becoming luxuries, available in midlife to those who can foot the bill. The marriage tax penalty makes it so that it costs more to combine two incomes, and waiting to finish law school and establish yourself in a career might also mean putting up thousands of dollars for fertility treatments when nature ages out. (Add this to nannying salaries and student loans and one has to wonder if we’re still coming out on top.)

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In considering the causes for dwindling fertility, it can be difficult to know which end is up. What role does the decline in testosterone levels among young men play: cause or effect? How concerned should we be about falling sperm counts? Are conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, which has become more prevalent among women in the past two decades, playing a part too? Is there actually something in our water

Perhaps there is, but it’s not the main cause of our dilemma—at least not according to Lyman Stone, research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Environmental factors are nothing compared to socio-political ones in American life, he argues, in discouraging young adults from marrying. The problem isn’t chemical, but cultural. 

Stone is the author of a new IFS study on marriage and fertility, along with Spencer James, associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University. Examining public data on global marriage and birth rates, Stone and James conclude that, contra public opinion, marriage is still highly influential on fertility: “The odds of marriage increase upon childbirth, and…the odds of childbirth increase upon marriage,” the authors conclude. 

“This means that whenever you’re thinking about children, you have to also think about marriage,” Stone told The American Conservative

In other words, centuries of human nature have not changed in a handful of decades. People aren’t having kids because they aren’t getting intimate with someone who is going to stay (or they aren’t getting intimate at all)—not, at least in most cases, because they are physically infertile. Those who conceive children, meanwhile, tend to seek and find permanent partners, and those who have permanent partners are more comfortable getting pregnant. Stability still matters.

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In all likelihood, this has as much to do with practical considerations as any other. It’s hard enough to raise a child with four hands, much less two. But, as Stone and James postulate, politics has also played a role—as it often does—in directing, if not entirely creating, the choices people make.

“Currently, the EITC [Earned Income Tax Credit] includes a large marriage penalty,” Stone said. “So if two working people get married, they actually lose benefits. Some of these policies that seem to be pro-natal, because they encourage childbearing, are actually anti-natal, because they discourage marriage.”

While unsurprising, this is a good reminder that the flow from politics to culture and back again is less of a stream and more of a whirlpool. A pro-natal policy is insufficient without a pro-marriage one, but a pro-marriage one is insufficient without the virtue culture required for true intimacy. Each can beget the other, and both are needed.

Which is why, though fixing the problem doesn’t just mean fixing the tax code, it is still a good place to start. Emma Waters, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family, said conservatives “need to rethink how our child support policies work” by linking them to marriage incentives as well. Stone also emphasized the importance of jobs, specifically flexible hours, a livable wage, career growth prospects, and improved work conditions for parents, aide which goes beyond covering the cost of childcare.

It’s not just marriage; the countries with the highest fertility rates are also the countries in which the median age of marriage was youngest, between 16 and 22 years old. To an American audience, the thought is disturbing. The United States’ average marriage age is 27 to 29 years; getting married and having a child before that point is reserved for the poor and the preachers. Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig of the Atlantic took heat for doing it at 25. On that note, the one type of birth rate which did rise in recent years was that of 30-somethings, when fertility and fecundability, or the ability to conceive, are far lower. If more people are having children in their thirties, fewer children are being born. This is precisely the authors’ point. 

“We as a society have started to turn away from marriage to some extent,” Stone said. “We have deprioritized it, pushed it later in life, and raised the threshold of what people should accomplish before marriage. That has a negative effect on fertility. If we want to see fertility rise, we need to think about marriage timing. We need to think about how to help people into happy, stable marriage unions at a younger age.”

This author did it, and she can’t pretend it was easy. But what things worth doing ever are?

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