Why Do Americans Want Children?

June 27, 1997

Do Americans see children from an economic perspective, like consumer durables, or are they perceived as invaluable social assets, like "threads from which the tapestry of life is woven?" An article in the June issue of Population and Development Review explores the reasons why people in low-fertility societies such as the United States continue to have children despite the high economic costs of raising them. According to Robert Schoen and his colleagues, childbearing is purposive behavior that creates and reinforces the most important and most enduring social bonds.

The authors used data from the 1987-88 National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) to examine childbearing intentions and assess the value placed on children in low fertility societies. They analyzed feedback from roughly 13,000 respondents, aged 16-39, who were asked to rank the importance of social and economic priorities, such as "giving my parents grandchildren," "having someone to care for me when I am old," "having someone to love," "being able to make major purchases," and "being able to buy a home." Respondents were also asked whether they agreed with statements such as "It's better for someone to have a child than to go through life childless," or if they felt "uncertainty about my ability to support a child."

The authors concluded that children bring a host of benefits beyond economic advantage. "While the economic value of children to their families has disappeared, their value as a social resource has persisted," the authors say. "Having children is an important way in which people create social capital for themselves." Children create social capital by establishing new relations among persons (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends) that are then available to parents as resources that they can use to achieve their interests.

Schoen and colleagues add a new perspective to classic demographic theories of fertility that emphasize the economic costs and benefits of childbearing. The classic "wealth flows" theory maintains that high fertility has been economically advantageous to most families over most of human history because children created "wealth" that flowed up from the younger to the older generation. Children were seen as resources who contribute to the family economy and support their aging parents. With the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the economic benefits of children virtually disappear, while their costs-in terms of education and other expenditures-increase dramatically.

According to the wealth flows theory, fertility decline in the US is the result of those decreasing benefits and increasing costs. But the theory fails to provide a rationale for why fertility does not continue to fall. "In short, there is no explanation for why Americans still want children," the authors say. The social resource value of children emerges as a powerful predictor of fertility intentions.

Attitudes toward childlessness significantly influence fertility intentions among respondents who had no children. For white childless men and women, married and unmarried, there is a direct relationship between the intention to have a child and the statement that "It's better for a person to have a child then to go through life childless."

Intended childlessness is still uncommon, the researchers found. "Among unmarried white women, both a low value on the social resource factor and a high value on career concerns are needed before our model predicts an intention to remain childless," they say. "Stopping at one child is also relatively infrequent and is almost always associated with a low value on the social resource variable. In contrast, most persons with two or more children do not intend to have any more."

Robert Schoen, Young J. Kim, and Constance A. Nathanson are Professors, Department of Population Dynamics, Johns Hopkins University. Nan Marie Astone is an Associate Professor and Jason Fields is a doctoral candidate.

Population Council

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