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As Elizabeth Warren sees it, offering affordable child care and early learning are the trifecta of pro-family policy — good for the kids, easier on the parents and a boost for the economy. The Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate spelled out her plan for universal child care and early learning on Feb. 19.
Warren said the challenge of paying for child care today is shaping the most personal of family decisions.
"The financial squeeze is so severe that it’s even deterring families from having kids at all," Warren said. "The high cost of child care is the No. 1 reason people give for having fewer children than they’d like."
As it turns out, somebody did ask couples about that, and Warren hewed to the survey results. But while the process of making babies is fairly straightforward, the (hopefully) conscious decision to make them is complicated. Costs, including child care, rank high, but so do other factors.
Behind Warren’s statement lies a New York Times/Morning Consult poll from 2018. They reached 1,858 men and women ages 20 to 45. Of that, less than a quarter said "they had or expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal."
Among that group of about 340 people, 64 percent said the reason they would have fewer children was because "child care is too expensive." The second most common reason at 54 percent was "want more time with the children I have."
The poll is a "useful data point, but it does not provide extremely strong evidence that this is the No. 1 reason,"sociologist Caroline Hartnett at the University of South Carolina told us.
Harnett said the sample size was small and limited research means, "we can't cross-check against other polls with similar questions."
Put another way: One survey does not one social truth make.
Warren’s statement "was reasonable," said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. But Cohen spotted an issue with the way the survey asked people to compare what they were doing to some imagined perfect number of offspring. Cohen called that "fraught," because it’s easy for people to say what they might ideally like, without having to think too hard about whether they really would like it.
There’s no question that women in the United States are giving birth at record low rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2017, the general fertility rate was 60.2 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44, down 3 percent from the year before.
There are three different ways to measure fertility, but two of them show the number is down, and researchers have been trying to figure out why.
There are a variety of reasons.
Cohen noted that women are waiting longer to start having children.
"The long-term trend is toward later births, which is generally going to mean fewer births," Cohen wrote in 2018.
"People who want later births," he wrote, "tend to want fewer children, and some people run out of time."
Cohen told us that plenty of factors play a role. Economic uncertainty, the rising cost of raising children, career demands and family leave policies are all important, he said, "but I don't have any research to prioritize or rank those things specifically."
In terms of people having fewer children than they might want, policy analyst Anqi Chen at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College pointed to a 2010 study that found that the demands of work stands out, especially for women as they get older. Career trade-offs become tougher as women rise in the workforce.
And the research also shows there’s a fundamental challenge of finding someone to have a child with, Chen said. The age when women marry (and men too) has climbed steadily since 1960. Divorce is also more common.
"No one can deny that having a kid is expensive — both in terms of opportunity cost and explicit costs — but it seems that competition from careers and not being in an ideal partnership are also very important," Chen said.
The New York Times/Morning Consult survey lent some support to this. The top two reasons childless adults gave for either waiting or not wanting to have children were "want leisure time" and "haven’t found a partner." The third was "can’t afford child care."
One of the challenges of sorting out the driving forces is they play off of each other. Religion, ethnicity and education heavily influence people’s "taste for children," as an article from the Boston College retirement research center put it, but those characteristics don’t live in a vacuum, separate from bread and butter concerns, such as the cost of child care.
Warren said, "The high cost of child care is the number one reason people give for having fewer children than they’d like." That is what respondents said in a survey commissioned by the New York Times.
The experts in fertility that we reached said the cost of raising children is certainly a factor, but that particular survey doesn’t prove that the cost of child care ranks above all others. Experts said research is limited, but what's been done suggests that a host of forces, including economic conditions, government policy, religion, ethnicity and education all play important roles.
We rate this statement Half True.
Medium, My plan for Universal Child Care, Feb. 19, 2019
New York Times, Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why, July 5, 2018
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Births: Provisional Data for 2017 , May 2018
U.S. Census Bureau, Median age at first marriage: 1890 to present, 2018
Population and Development Review, The Correspondence Between Fertility Intentions and Behavior in the United States, April 21, 2010
Family Inequality - Philip Cohen, Fertility trends explained, 2017 edition, May 22, 2018
Boston College Center for Retirement Research, Is the Drop in Fertility Temporary or Permanent?, July 2018
Email interview, Caroline Hartnett, assistant professor, Sociology Department, University of South Carolina, Feb. 21, 2019
Email interview, Philip Cohen, professor, Sociology Department, University of Maryland, Feb. 21, 2019
Email interview, Anqi Chen , assistant director, Boston College Center for Retirement Research, Feb. 21, 2019
Interview, Chris Hayden, spokesman, Warren for President, Feb. 21, 2019
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