The Disappearing Babies

On February 3, the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) reported research regarding American birth rates in the decade 2009-19. The results are not good. Even if we take 2008 as a baseline, the ensuing decade showed an implosion in birth rates. If birth rates had only stayed where they were in 2008 (remember, birth rates had been trending downward before that), there should be 5,800,000 more children in the United States than there are.  

Drilling deeper into the data, the decline cut across all major demographic lines (white, black, Native American, Asian, and Hispanic). While some groups occasionally plateaued and others just plummeted, everybody ended the decade with birth rates markedly below where they had been ten years earlier. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was the collapse in Hispanic birth rates: almost half (47%) of that 5.8 million baby birth dearth are Hispanics. If Hispanic women had children at the rate they did in 2008, they would have reduced white mothers to a minority of population births in 2019. That they didn’t appears correlated with Hispanic women’s child bearing rates in 2008 (2.8) versus 2019 (2.0, i.e., below replacement).

Consider, also, that the 2009-19 birth dearth will probably be exacerbated by the annus horribilis of 2020 and COVID-19. As of this writing, the CDC attributes approximately 450,000 American deaths to the pandemic. And contrary to some initial hopes, there doesn’t appear to be a COVID-19 baby boom, but instead a baby bust

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A baby bust leaves its mark on society in a direct way for about 70-80 years (a typical lifespan) and an indirect one permanently. Our current lack of one-to-ten-year-olds will translate in a decade into a paucity of grade, high, and college students as well as first-job work entrants. The snowball multiplies across the decades, with fewer workers paying fewer dollars to subsidize entitlement programs, fewer people to marry, the not unreasonable possibility of their having fewer children…in short, a shrinking and aging society. It leaves its mark permanently by erasing from the picture all the activities (and children) those missing never do or have. Think George Bailey.

What caused the depressed birth rates of the past decade? A review of the history of those ten years suggests some obvious answers. 

The 2008-11 recession obviously had an effect on marriage and parenthood. On the plus side, it reduced divorce, because two cannot live as cheaply as one flesh, especially in a society whose economic structure has geared itself to two-income households. On the minus side, it probably also drove down childbearing.

But while the economy appeared to recover (at least by the benchmarks economists employ) and, indeed, Americans arguably experienced a bull stock market in the Trump Administration, the question remains: Did Americans recover from their economic uncertainties? The 2016 election suggested that, at least for working/middle class Americans, the answer was “no.” 

Further attention should be directed to the kinds of jobs created post 2008-11. While a “job” might mask unemployment, was the quality of those jobs (full v. part time, pay scales, benefits, permanence) more tenuous? For young people finishing schooling (high school or college) and seeking to enter the workforce in a first full-time job, were opportunities there? If there were, what were they and did they correlate with the economic situation of those first full-time workers? Were the jobs a high school graduate could obtain only slightly better than welfare?  Were the jobs a college graduate could get allowing him to start paying down (student) debt?

Financial instability has been blamed as one of the reasons for why Americans are marrying later than ever or not at all. I’m not inclined to lay all the blame on finances—birth rates plummet even in economically secure European social welfare states—but neither would I minimize their impact. While materialism can always offer an excuse that “we’re not ready yet,” there is something to be said for the desire to enter marriage with some measure of financial security to enable a couple to do “married” things, like have children and buy their own house.  

But financial factors alone do not affect marrying and childbearing.  Cultural factors also devalue having children. Indeed, the lack of children is a perverse feedback loop: One of the factors the National Marriage Project (NMP) annually examines is what it called the “loss of child centeredness.” The time Americans spend with kids has progressively decreased. Fewer kids means less time with kids. A personal illustration: There is an 11 year span between my eldest and youngest child.  Assuming (dato non concesso) that children start to go off on their own when they finish college, my wife and I will spend 33 years with a child in our lives before they theoretically make their ways in the world. Absent our youngest, that range would shrink to 24 years. 

The time American adults spend with kids shrinks with fewer kids. Divorce tests one’s mastery of division: How does one parcel who “gets the kids?” Life expectancy reduces the ratio of a child’s life presence in an adult’s life. Growing childlessness cancels it altogether.

Our understanding of marriage affects childbearing. The states which sought to protect sexual differentiation as an essential element of marriage often argued that marriage and procreation had a natural nexus. The Supreme Court in Obergefell formally severed it, but its practical severance had occurred long before 2015 as contraception gained acceptance, even among nominal Catholics.

But the NMP also identified a seismic but generally insufficiently considered shifting in American thinking about marriage. Even as Catholic thought concedes that marriage and parenthood are distinct if related institutions, the rise of the “soulmate” model of companionate marriage fostered the view that those institutions are distinct but unrelated. While most people don’t bother themselves to think about the theoretical implications of what they believe, the practical effect has been that marriage has shifted from being about us-cum-future-family to simply us. As NMP research showed, children are, in fact, seen as an enemy to soulmate marriage because they necessarily shift the couple’s focus from us to them, rendering void all the assumptions about the nature of marriage that the “soulmate” model entailed.  

There will clearly be little consensus to forge a public view of marriage as related to parenthood, at least from most present political forces; but it does accentuate the yeoman work for churches (and especially the Church) to reconstruct that marriage-and-parenthood vision. For the Protestant “mainline/old line” (to borrow Neuhaus’s term) that’s going to be hard, given their approval of contraception. But Catholic marital and sexual ethics are still congruent with a vision of marriage and parenthood as intrinsically and not just accidentally or functionally related. Its task is simply to teach what it says it believes. That just doesn’t mean a few doctrinal citations or a reading from Humanae vitae, but a whole vision of marriage as it fits into the life of the average believer, and that is as much practical as theoretical.

Let me give a simple illustration. Something that struck me when I first studied at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, was a discussion we had in a language instruction course on the topic: What kind of spouse would you want? The Polish teachers made it the topic of conversation because they considered it a topic college and older students would have ordinarily given some thought to and could expatiate upon. The Western students, especially the Americans, seemed surprised that the whole idea might be the subject of a public social conversation and repartee. 

How do we expect to foster a vision of marriage if we don’t talk about it?

Because the Church’s role would be formative of a vision it would, as noted, be unlikely to find “common ground” with political discussions. Indeed, in the current climate of gender debates, the Church’s best hope would be to be left alone. But promote its vision it must. Two poles—the cultural vision and the economic conditions—are essential if we are to staunch the death spiral our growing rates of childlessness augur. 

Two writers in the South China Morning Post reported research in January that, at least in East Asia, social and governmental efforts to promote marriage bolstered the birth rate. Chen and Yip note that every one percent increase in marriage rates among 25-29-year-old females was marked by an increase in fertility rates. While our two scholars “discovered” what most people knew about “the birds and the bees,” the Western fetish for numbers documenting claims helps make the case that promoting marriage promotes childbearing which promotes social stability.  

The writing—or rather, the numbers—are on the wall.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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