Are children going out of style? Most American women still say they want and expect to become mothers, and a majority of them surely will. Yet even now, the number who will not give birth is at an all-time high. The most recent fertility survey, conducted in 1998, found that among women who had reached the age of forty, 19 percent had not yet had a child. And when childless women of all ages were asked how many children they expected to have in the future, 21.3 percent said they did not anticipate having any at all. At the same time, those who do become mothers are having smaller families. A generation ago, in 1970, among women aged forty, more than half—53.4 percent—had had three or more children. For women of that age in 1995, only 27.8 percent had that many.1

Declines in fertility are becoming common around the globe, from Latvia and Portugal to Barbados and Singapore. As can be seen in Table A (see page 14), a broad array of countries have rates below replacement levels. Among the least fecund are Spain and Italy, despite their Catholic histories. Ireland and Malta also have subzero growth, even though they ban abortion and limit access to reliable contraception. On islands like Mauritius and Guadeloupe, with rates below replacement, reproduction is no longer a result of habit or pressure. There and elsewhere, it is increasingly a choice, and one that fewer adults are making. True, it will be some years before Yemen and Uganda get to zero growth. But if it can happen in Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan, as it has, the possibility should not be dismissed.

As it happens, fertility rates in the United States have taken a somewhat different tack. In 1960, at the peak of the baby boom, each 100 women averaged 365 children, greater than the current level in India. By 1976, America’s fertility had plummeted to 174 per 100 women, about where Thailand’s is today. But since then, unlike in other countries, America’s fertility has been edging upward: last year it stood at 208, just short of the replacement rate. The chief cause has been the rising Hispanic population, whose rate of 298 means it now accounts for 25.3 percent of the nation’s births. Americans of European ancestry, with a rate of 185, are contributing only 59.4 percent of new babies, although they account for 71.6 percent of the population. In fact, 1971 was the last year when white Americans had enough children to replace themselves.


Elinor Burkett claims to speak for a growing group of adults: men and women who are choosing not to have children. On first reading, she seems to have a reasonable complaint. On the job, she tells us, she has to put in overtime for her colleagues, so that they can take “leave from work to watch Susi dance Swan Lake.” And while her employer offers liberal child-based benefits, there are no similar perquisites for people like herself. Whether intended or not, we now have “affirmative action for mothers,” which results in “equal pay for unequal work.” Moreover, it is the affluent who come out ahead. Because the IRS allows deductions for nannies, “the six-figure income crowd is receiving multi-thousand dollar tax breaks while the childless poor are losing their public benefits.”

How serious are these grievances? After all, among persons who have equivalent earnings, those without children generally end up with a lot more to spend on themselves. (Witness the spurts in spending by parents once they no longer have to support their offspring.) Still, Burkett is right to stress that less support is given to adults looking after their aged parents. And she is understandably bothered by writers like Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West, who would give families with children extra votes. Or the proposal of Heidi Hartmann, of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, that generous stipends be given to all single mothers, “whether or not dad hands over a dime.”

However, The Baby Boon has another purpose, even if it is not explicitly stated. It seeks to give voice to men and women who, like W.C. Fields, simply do not like children. (Not surprisingly, German has a word for it: Kinderfeindlichkeit.) Burkett calls her mode of life “childfree,” and sympathizes with those who speak of parents as “breeders.” Some of her proposals have a reasonable ring; yet in conveying them, she reveals her animus. Many will agree that having “adults-only” times and places can often make sense. But she wants them so that adults are able to “shop, dine, or swim without being drowned out by wailing infants or rammed into by rambunctious toddlers.” Is the need for childfree shopping really that great? It is for Burkett, who wants youngsters banned from supermarkets at posted hours, so adults may “push their carts through the aisles without having to maneuver around a bunch of six-year-olds playing hide-and-seek behind the cereal.” Grinchlike comments like these can give nonparenthood a bad name.


Sometimes, her statistics are misleading. She says the Census found that “as many as 19 percent of married couples choose not to have children.” But the figure is only that high among younger couples and older remarrieds. The study by the National Center for Health Statistics cited earlier reported that 93.9 percent of married women either already had a child or expected to have one. She is on firmer ground when she says that the “Kid-Free Zone” is “the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s population.” Not only that, many are enforcing her “kid-free” stricture. A graphic example can be found in retirement communities which have ruled that grandchildren can only stay for brief visits. This includes barring, say, a recently divorced daughter who might want to bring her own child for a few months while she straightens out her life.

What Burkett doesn’t explain is why more people are deciding to forego parenthood. Nor does she reveal her own reasons for believing that staying childless has given her a better life.2 Not so very long ago, adults who chose not to have children were accused of being selfish. However, the reasoning behind the charge was seldom spelled out. Thus adults were told that they had a duty to reproduce: to strengthen the nation, to perpetuate a family or a faith, even to ensure the survival of the species. And in parts of the world, the command to be fruitful and multiply is still pronounced and heeded. Those who demur are seen as shirking a responsibility and placing their personal desires over pursuing a greater good. On the whole, though, far fewer people than in the past believe they have an obligation to become parents.

There are couples who feel their lives will be more enjoyable or more productive if they are not encumbered by children. Are they selfish? In reply, it may be asked if their choice brings harm to anyone. It does not. Even if they are self-absorbed, foregoing parenthood need not mean they are taking more from the world than they are putting in. Does this mean the decision to raise children should be viewed as an altruistic act? This view has become common among economists, largely inspired by Gary Becker’s Treatise on the Family, which as much as any of his other works led to his award of the Nobel Prize in economics.3

In reducing such choices as marriage and childbearing to rational calculations, Becker’s approach has little appreciation of the intimate experiences of personal and family life. Neither complex feelings of love, tenderness, and hate, nor the ambivalence of people’s changing perceptions, have much place in his theories. The reader may find himself thinking that Becker and his school would benefit from a long season of reading imaginative literature, beginning perhaps with the works of Chekhov, in order to gain a different kind of understanding of the nuances of family experience. Still, by insisting that a calculus of benefits underlies many choices we make, Becker can be coolly suggestive. Following his approach, the contributors to The Economics of Reciprocity, Giving and Altruism look upon parent-child relations as a nexus of investments and repayments, with mutually beneficial outcomes. As Alessandro Cigno and Furio Rosati put it, parents are being “altruistic if all they obtain [by] doing something for others is the pleasure of making those others happy.” So good parents need not be selfless, or deprive themselves for their children’s well-being. As Anne Laferrère puts it, “altruistic persons maximizing their utility”—i.e., their own well-being—“are just as ‘selfish’ as any Homo economicus. Their utility is enhanced by raising another person’s utility, with whatever motivation.”

To construe families as economic units requires some suspension of disbelief. While parents pay most of the bills, Laferrère suggests that there will also be “services given by the child,” whether in the present or an anticipated future. When youngsters say they love their parents, this “service” can be regarded as reimbursement for some of the outlays their parents have made. It comes as a relief when the book’s contributors grant that not all family exchanges can be expressed in monetary terms, not least because of the changes in the reasons for having children.

In the past, additional children were welcomed as more hands to work the farm. If parents today stop at one or two, it is because, as Becker put it, they hope to improve the “quality” of the few they have. True, parents in earlier times wanted their offspring to be at least moderately successful, so they could care for them in their old age. But the services wanted from “quality” children are less tangible. For one thing, modern parents are less likely to look to their children for economic support. According to economists influenced by Becker, they often want the children in order to have visible achievements that can be cited in their social circle. Acceptance by an elite college is an obvious example, as is success in a recognized profession. According to this economic perception of altruism, members of both generations win—except perhaps children who lack the capacity or inclination to pursue the goals their parents set for them.


Adults who choose to raise children do so because they believe it will bring them more pleasure than would be the case if they were childless. Of course, there are no guarantees. (Becker added a “Rotten Child Theorem” to his analysis.) On the whole, most who have taken on parenthood would probably say that its benefits predominated and they would do it again. And most would add that those gains outweigh whatever they might have done had they not had children. At the same time, when parents assume extra burdens to aid their offspring, they are often praised for making sacrifices. In the same vein, children are told they should be grateful for all that was done for them. Imposing this psychological burden can cause harm, fostering guilt or even hatred for their parents. (Of course there should be exchanges of “thank yous” on suitable occasions.) Here the economic model clearly seems preferable: whatever parents do are choices they willingly make, whether in the hope of acclaim from others or simply to feel they have done their best to help children realize their possibilities.

In fact, there are plenty of parents who are selfish or destructive or both. This is clearly the case with those who abuse their children physically, mentally, or sexually. Insofar as these adults are so disposed, it is irresponsible or worse for them to take on parenthood. They may “want” to have children. But it may turn out they do so for the wrong reasons; and even if they have good intentions, they may well bring misery to the offspring they produce. A certain proportion of adults lack a temperament for being passable parents; sad to say, more than a few who fall in this group cannot recognize their own deficiencies.

Nor is there a shortage of men who embark on siring children to ratify their masculinity and attractiveness to women. Most do little or nothing to support the small lives they set in motion. Such defaulting fathers can be found in all classes. They become parents because it gives them a sense of power and self-satisfaction, a reason about as irresponsible and selfish as it is possible to imagine. Their counterparts are women who enjoy being pregnant and like babies when they are tiny, but show scant talent or interest in caring for them as they grow older. These mothers sometimes have several children, to gratify these urges. This, too, is hardly an altruistic exercise of parenthood, and it is far from uncommon. Indeed, if traits like these could be added up, we might well find that the selfishness shown by parents outweighs that evident in the childless.


If fewer women are becoming mothers, those who do have a new approach to motherhood. In particular, most are disinclined to make caring for their children their primary occupation. Among married women with preschool children under the age of six, fully seven in ten now have paid employment. Table B on this page shows the distribution for these 10.3 million young mothers whose husbands have full-time occupations. As it turns out, they fall into three groups of relatively equal size. What should be noted first of all is that 3.6 million of them work only part-time. While their earnings tend to be supplementary, they serve to lift most of their family incomes over the $50,000 mark.

In another 3.1 million homes, the mothers do not work at all, despite the fact that the husbands in most of these households make less than $50,000 a year. These wives are still in the traditional mold, having decided to stay at home, even if it means financial sacrifices. At the other end, close to a quarter of the husbands in this group earn over $100,000 on their own, which suggests that the wives don’t need to work, and have decided not to do so.

Of the remaining 3.5 million young mothers who have full-time jobs, just as many also have husbands who bring in substantial earnings. We generally hear that most women are working because their households need the money, and in many cases this is true. Yet what some people define as needs can call for incomes running into six figures. As it happens, quite a few are already there: of the nation’s 72 million families, 15.2 percent now have incomes above $100,000, mostly coming from joint earnings. Still, more than half of employed women say they would continue working even if their families didn’t need the money. 4 Today, they as much as men want the freedoms and opportunities to be found outside the home. And perhaps the first of those freedoms is not having to spend the greater part of your day diverting a small child, which isn’t very different from a freedom fathers have generally enjoyed.

Several other shifts have moved people away from parenthood. Whether by choice or circumstance, fewer Americans are getting married, which in turn depresses the birth rate. In 1998, among women who had reached forty, 9.9 percent had not married, against 5.4 percent in 1970. It is true that a third of all babies are now born to single mothers, including such celebrities as Madonna and Jodie Foster; even so, it seems clear that a lot of women who would once have had children are not doing so. Another 15.8 percent of women at forty are divorced and have not remarried, almost three times the 5.6 percent in 1970. Often they have had only one child and will not be having more. Had they stayed married, as most of their counterparts had in the past, most would probably have had at least a second child.5

One of the findings in Table C (see page 16) shows that among men in their early forties, fully 15.6 percent are still bachelors, and this is twice the figure for thirty years ago. Some will ultimately marry, but it won’t be many. Of the men going into first marriages in recent years, only 3 percent have been over forty. That so many decide to stay single is partly explained by the fact that more are identifying themselves as homosexuals. This has to mean that fewer men will be siring children. In the past, a high proportion of homosexual men married and became parents, in many cases never disclosing their anomalous situation. True, today both single homosexual men and women and homosexual couples are raising children. However, this will increase overall births only if, rather than adopt a child, they arrange for special pregnancies, something that is still relatively rare.

Roe v. Wade made abortions legal in 1973. By 1979, some 1.5 million abortions were being performed each year. At last count, in 1996, there were thirty-five abortions for every one hundred actual births. How far the availability of abortion affects birth rates cannot be estimated with precision. States like Utah and Idaho make abortions difficult and have high birth rates, which seems to suggest a connection. However, Maine and West Virginia also have few abortions, while their birth rates rank among the lowest in the country.6 What can be said is that four of every five abortion patients are single, so without this option there would probably be more births in the out-of-wedlock column.

As Table C also shows, between 1970 and 1998 the nation’s population rose by about a third, which is what is to be expected over that long a period. But the number of births went from 3,731,000 in 1970 to 3,942,000 in 1998, an increase of only 5.7 percent.7 Even more notable, births among married couples fell from 3,332,000 to 2,693,000, a drop of 19.2 percent. So what made the overall 5.7 percent increase pos-sible was a threefold leap in out-of-wedlock births, from 399,000 in 1970 to 1,249,000 in 1998. Because of this and the high incidence of divorce, currently 31.9 percent of American youngsters are living with only their mothers, or in some other nontraditional arrangement. While some parents are having fewer children so that they can have added advantages, each year sees many starting with disadvantages that are not easily remedied.


By all accounts, it costs more to raise children than in the past. Even items like sneakers have expensive high-tech features, while youngsters’ rooms are crammed with electronic gear, and jaunts to Disneyland are built into family budgets. Every few years, the Department of Agriculture estimates the cost of raising a child from its birth through its eighteenth birthday. For those born in 1970, the outlay averaged $140,965 in today’s dollars. By 1999, the outlay of children born that year had grown to $236,600, or two thirds higher. Computed another way, the cost of rearing a 1970 child was a 3.6 multiple of the median family income for that year; by 1999, it had increased to a 5.1 ratio.8

Of course, outlays often don’t stop when children reach eighteen. Indeed, the largest single expenditure, for parents who undertake it, is for sending them through college. Nor does this apply to only a small part of the population. Over half of high school seniors now continue their education, although some go to two-year colleges and not all who enroll finish. Still, each year over 1.1 million Americans receive bachelors’ degrees, which means nearly 30 percent of the current generation of parents are investing in them. So it seems not unreasonable to conclude that if people are having fewer children, the prospect of college figures in this decision.

True, about two thirds go to public colleges. Yet even there, tuitions are no longer nominal. State residents at the University of Michigan are now paying $6,328, while the bill at Vermont is $8,268, to which must be added living costs and foregone earnings. Among the nation’s 1,705 private colleges, over 40 percent are asking more than $16,000 for tuition alone. And most of these are schools with limited reputations. Hiram College in Ohio, simply to cite one example, costs $17,550 a year. As is well known, tuitions at some of the best-known colleges now exceed $25,000. Schools like Swarthmore, Pomona, and Princeton ask for approximately that amount, even though their endowments exceed $500,000 per student, which, cautiously invested, would bring in what they ask in tuition.

Why are college expenses so high? Ronald G. Ehrenberg sets out to answer this question in Tuition Rising. He teaches economics at Cornell, where he has also served as a vice-president. As might be expected, he relies mainly on figures from Cornell, where tuition for arts and sciences undergraduates is also in the $25,000 range. Extras like textbooks, meals, housing, travel, and a laptop easily add another $15,000. If his book is read by bill-paying parents, it will offer them little solace.

Many of the expenditures Ehrenberg examines turn out to be necessary and not amenable to reduction, at least in his judgment. Thus we are told what it costs to air-condition Cornell’s computer system, which requires piping water up from Lake Cayuga. For intercollegiate athletics, he offers a beguiling defense. When colleges have winning teams, more students apply and this larger pool brings better applicants, even for selective schools like Northwestern and Duke. But this dividend comes only with football and basketball, with their expensive staffs and players who are often borderline students. Ehrenberg does not show how far, if at all, maintaining teams adds to alumni giving. Indeed, all indications are that serious donors, like Bill Gates and William Hewlett and David Packard, have more cerebral reasons for supporting higher education.

Ehrenberg reports that the University of North Carolina now has twenty-six intercollegiate teams, Ohio State fields thirty-two, and Brown has thirty-six. Imagine the cost of sending Brown’s ice hockey team to play against Penn, with airfares, hotels, and meals for players and coaches, not to mention shipping the equipment. Nor are we told how education is enhanced by sending students to play volleyball and water polo on other campuses.

Education is labor-intensive, so faculty salaries figure strongly in college costs. Most economic enterprises look for ways to reduce their wage bills. Many schools are doing this by hiring part-time adjunct teachers. But most still give generous salaries to their tenured faculty members. At twenty-three universities, ranging from Northwestern and Rutgers to Emory and UCLA, the average pay for full professors now exceeds $100,000. And at most of these universities, full professors have most of the faculty positions and they absorb at least 70 percent of the full salary budget. Higher education is the only industry to assure lifetime paychecks to so many on its payroll. Civil servants may be difficult to dislodge, but they face retirement rules. Professors can not only stay on with full pay for as long as they like, but are free to ignore any inducements to step down.

Tuition Rising would lead its readers to assume that all who gain tenure keep on fulfilling their promise. It doesn’t tell us that many, if not most, full professors no longer receive offers from other schools. Yet raises continue even for those who have ceased being creative, not only in scholarship, but also in the classroom. Of course, it could be that parents don’t care about what goes onto their college bills. Most willingly pay for the diploma, as a last investment to assure their offspring’s success. Nor will they be persuaded by the many studies showing that for students with similar scores and grades and motivation, it doesn’t really matter whether they go to Princeton or Purdue.9 Many hope that their children, by going to schools regarded as superior, will themselves become part of an elite.

Some reasons for remaining childless that used to be voiced are seldom heard today. One was that it would be a disservice to youngsters to bring them into a cruel and callous world, or one in which the risk of nuclear annihilation seemed altogether possible. Concerns about overpopulation, including the prospect of famines, moved some couples to aver that they would not contribute to the problem. In fact, this worry continues, but less is said about there being fewer mouths to feed, and more about the demands advanced nations make on all resources. Bill McKibben has called for reducing America’s population, since a child raised in the United States will use twenty times as much energy as one in Costa Rica, and seventy times as much as one in Bangladesh.10 To be able to argue that the problem is having too many affluent people surely underscores how our times differ from every preceding one.

Demographers have yet to account for the baby boom of 1946 to 1964, when Americans in every social class had unexpectedly large numbers of children, in most instances by choice. To an extent, government policies contributed—for example, by guaranteeing mortgages that opened the suburbs for four-bedroom homes. But more crucially, these were mainly the Eisenhower-Kennedy years. America was the world’s principal power, and Americans were certain this was to be their nation’s century. They had con-fidence in the future, and felt sure it would do well by their children. It may not be a coincidence that conceptions began to decline in 1963, the year the questioning of America’s primacy began.

This Issue

November 30, 2000