The gap between how many children Americans want and how many they are actually having is growing wider, the latest data show.
Women now have an average of 1.77 children over the course of their lives, according to the latest estimates from the CDC.
This falls short of what Americans say the ideal number of children in a family would be: in 2016, the majority of people who wanted children wanted to have two or more.
Fertility rates are staggeringly low compared to the average 3.7 children women were having in 1960, or even the 2.1 average from 1990, according to World Bank data.
But an expert suggests that this growing gap may actually reflect encouraging trends like the decline in early and unintended pregnancies among poorer women.
The gap between how many children women want (green) and how many national fertility rates suggest they will have (purple) has grown in recent years
Nationwide, fertility rates have dipped down to just 60.6 per every 1,000 women in their reproductive years.
Meanwhile, male infertility rates have continued to rise precipitously around the world, eliciting widespread concern among global reproductive health experts.
In recent years, more women have wanted to wait until later in life to have children, giving rise to higher birth rates in older age groups.
More and more women are also opting to forego having children altogether. In 20126, the majority of respondents to the General Social Survey (GSS), put out by the University of Chicago, said that they did not want nay children.
The number of children most people consider ‘ideal,’ has wavered slightly over time and trended ever-so-slightly up in recent years.
For example, in 2012, an estimated 31 percent of people wanted two children as compared to the 16.2 percent that wanted three.
By 2016, the rates of people who wanted two children fell a little – to 29.4 percent – and three children became a bit more desirable, with 16.7 percent of people saying this would be their ideal family.
But really, Americans do not move too far from the two – maybe three – mindset about kids, says Dr Alaka Basu, a development sociologist at Cornell University.
‘In most parts of the world, two to three children, that’s a figure that people give almost mechanically,’ she says.
More and more women and couples are choosing to not have children, but ‘of the ones that do have children, there are very few that want just one,’ Dr Basu says.
‘A large number of people say that they don’t want to have any children, or they tend to keep in the backs of their minds that they would like to have one boy and one girl.’
The results of the GSS bear that out: year after year, since it was first distributed in 1972, around one percent of respondents say that they want just one child.
In 2014, 15 percent of families were childless, as compared to 10 percent in 1976, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Pinning down the actual ‘ideal’ family size or how many people do not want to have children is tricky for a number of reasons, and the data varies widely.
The GSS, for example, reports that 0.45 percent of people wanted to have no children in 2016, an increase over 2012 (0.40 percent), but a decrease over rates in 1996 (0.83 percent).
Yet, the larger Gallup survey, published in 2013 says that five percent of Americans did not want children that year, an increase over the four percent who intended to opt out of childbearing in both 2003 and 1990.
‘But the gap does seem to be increasing’ between the ideal family size and the number of children women are actually having, Dr Basu says.
Birth rates have been dropping among younger groups of women as they increase for older women, due to the ‘postponement effect,’ Dr Basu says
So if it is not desired family size that’s shifting, it must be fertility.
But, she cautions that the lower number of children the CDC data shows women having – an average of 1.77 births over the course of a woman’s life – may be misleading.
That number comes from a calculation based on the fertility rates of women of all ages at a particular time and ‘it’s saying that today’s women don’t have as many children as they go through life, but I don’t think that’s right, because it’s part of the postponement effect,’ Dr Basu explains.
‘Today’s women and young girls have very low fertility rates, but by the time they are 20 or 25, they may have more [children]’ Dr Basu says.
So that average of 1.77 children per woman ‘is not going to actually be the number of children they have when they finish childbearing,’ she says.
Since 2010, birth rates among teenagers have fallen precipitously, and the number of women between 20and 29 have dipped as well – although the highest birth rates are still among 25- to 29-year-olds.
Meanwhile, birth rates have risen significantly for older women, especially among those between 40 and 44 years old. Women between 30 and 34 are nearly tied with 25- to 29-year-olds for birth rates.
This is what Dr Basu referred to as the postponement effect, which she has observed internationally through her research, and it may not be such a bad thing.
‘What’s happening is that birth rates are actually falling among immigrants,’ who, Dr Basu says, have historically had larger families, driving up national averages ‘poorer and less educated women.’
‘It’s not bad at all because among poorer women, being single or being a teen mothers is debilitating, so if that is coming down that is good,’ Dr Basu says.
Instead, ‘many people people are trying to live a different kind of life, trying to get educated and [avoid] the disadvantages of teen pregnancy, and programs reducing teen pregnancy in the US may be having effect,’ she adds.