Here's why it matters that Americans are having fewer children than ever before

Americans and Europeans are abandoning parenthood at an alarming rate, profoundly changing the nature of our societies, our politics and our cultures.

Last year, women in the U.S. had children at the lowest rate ever recorded. There were just 60.2 births for every 1,000 girls and women ages 15 to 44 in our country. As a result, there were fewer births in America last year – 3.85 million babies – than at any time since 1987. This was a 2 percent drop from 2016.

In addition, those having the most children are least able to pay for their upbringing. American women became mothers last year at rates that were inversely proportional to family income. The birth rate was almost 50 percent higher for those with less than $10,000 in family income than for those with family incomes of $200,000 or more.

There are many wonderful mothers in impoverished families. And a good income is no guarantee of good parenting. But in general, children being raised in very low-income families will struggle, while children being raised in middle- and upper-income families will do better without relying on taxpayers to finance their upbringing.

The lack of commitment of middle-class and wealthy Americans to having and parenting their own children goes hand in hand with our elite’s casual approach to other issues – in particular, mass immigration.

The notion that we can simply import foreigners to make up for the child-rearing job we have refused to do ourselves completely ignores the cultural, civic and economic impacts of immigration – as well as the impacts to ourselves when we bring in foreign adults as a substitute for raising our own children.

While I would be the last person to insist that large families like ours be the American model, an America where only the poorest have large families and most people choose to have small families – or no children at all – is not economically or culturally sustainable.

While selective immigration in conjunction with a naturally growing population and economy can be a healthy phenomenon, using immigration as a substitute for having enough of our own children leads us down an  easy and comfortable but ultimately perilous route without precedent in American history.

People having fewer or no children at all may seem at first blush to be simply making a personal choice, of consequence only to themselves. However, this decision is actually one with profound political implications.

No matter where on Earth a person lives, parenthood is a lifelong investment. The willingness to make that investment is a critical indicator and determinant of a person’s political viewpoint.

In the U.S., parents with more children are embracing a more traditional lifestyle and also are more likely to vote Republican. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won all 10 of the states with the highest fertility rates – as well as 16 of 17 states with the highest fertility rates. And the bottom 10 states in fertility were all carried by Hillary Clinton.

The most family-friendly element of the tax cuts Congress approved and President Trump signed into law was increasing the child tax credit from $2,000 from $1,000 (where it had been stuck since 2003) and substantially raising the phase-out threshold from $110,000 in family income to $400,000. It’s a change that puts real money in the pockets of taxpaying American families.

Still, even under the new tax regime, the fertility of women of childbearing age in households paying no federal income taxes is almost 25 percent higher than the fertility of those paying income taxes. To say this demographic trend is incompatible with the long-term viability of a welfare state is understating matters considerably.

But for all the challenges we face in the U.S., the problem is far worse in Europe, where the current attitude was summarized in a recent report by Population Europe titled  “No Kids, No Problem!”

European women of child-bearing age had an average of 1.56 children each over their lifetimes – far fewer than the 2.1 necessary to even keep their population stable. The comparable figure in the U.S. is 1.76 children per woman. And both the numbers in the U.S. and in Europe would be far worse were it not for higher immigrant fertility.

In Europe, it’s not just that they are having fewer children – more and more people aren’t having any children at all.

The Europeans who are declining to become parents are only following the example of their leaders. Of the six founding members of the European Union (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) today only one of them (Belgium) is led by someone who has had children.

Britain and the European Commission are also headed by childless leaders. Amazingly, these eight core leaders of modern Europe have a total of only two children among them.

Contrast this demographic collapse to the situation of the leaders of this same group of countries in 1951, when they founded what became the European Union. At that time, the eight leaders of these countries had 32 children.

If you wanted to summarize the forthcoming demographic and cultural collapse of Europe in one statistic, the decline in children among Europe’s core leaders from 32 to 2 in a little more than a generation would be an ideal place to start.

At an individual level, each of today’s European leaders may have had compelling or even tragic reasons for not becoming a parent – perhaps at great personal sorrow. Yet while we cannot judge any one particular situation, we can almost certainly say that such a dramatic pattern is not coincidental. Nor is it harmless.

In both Europe and the U.S., the decline in motherhood – and the increased decline in the number of men accepting the responsibilities of fatherhood (40 percent of births in the U.S and Europe  occur out of wedlock) are indicative of a materialistic, pleasure-seeking, live-for-today ethos. This attitude minimizes or denies the obligations we have toward future generations.

It is a sign of our crisis of parenthood that to even raise such issues publicly is uncomfortable. Certainly, maximum childbearing is not an outcome we seek – countries with the world’s highest fertility rates are mired in poverty and face many challenges. But with so many of the West’s citizens and leaders abandoning parenthood and responsibility, some response is needed.

I say all this not as an academic observer but as the father of five young children, with a wife who works part-time at night. We have taken no paid maternity or paternity leaves and utilized only very limited outside child care. So I know from my personal experience every day the sort of social, emotional and financial sacrifices that parenting requires.

While I would be the last person to insist that large families like ours be the American model, an America where only the poorest have large families and most people choose to have small families – or no children at all – is not economically or culturally sustainable.

In his book, “The Disappearance of Childhood,” the late cultural critic Neil Postman wrote: "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” 

We need to keep sending those messages, not just because it is our responsibility or because of the profound love and joy children bring into our lives, but because we realize that a society that abandons parenthood is a society that forfeits its future.

Jeremy Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycarl4.