Many US parents dream of having more children. Financial worries are holding them back
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Whitney Klemm and her husband had always dreamed of having three children. They both have good-paying, stable jobs – she manages contracts for a large dairy manufacturer in Utah and he is a project manager for an oil and gas services company – so she thought their joint income would more than enough to cover the cost. But then came their daughter, now two years old, and their son, now seven months.
"I had no idea how much it was going to cost," Klemm, 34, said of having children. Taking several weeks of unpaid leave after each child's birth put the family behind. And the $2 000 (about R30 000) a month they pay for both children to go to a child care centre full time eats up nearly 20% of the family's disposable income, she said: "I still don't feel our family is complete. But I don't see a way out of it. It's really sad."
Stories like Klemm's are becoming more common. The fertility rate in the United States was already at a record low in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and pushed the rate even lower. The gap between the number of children people would like and the number they expect to have is at an all-time high - a sign, some researchers say, that having children in the United States is just too difficult.
"We don't talk about what a financial burden having even a planned pregnancy can be," said Diana Limongi. The 39-year-old blogger had her two children before New York State passed a paid family leave policy, so she had to rely on savings and credit cards to recover from childbirth, she said, and continues to rely on family to help with child care.
As Democrats in Congress continue to wrangle over what could be the first major federal investment in child care and a paid family and medical leave plan to make it easier for people to start and raise families, a new survey released last week by the Pew Research Center finds that a growing share of Americans say they're unlikely to have kids at all.
Forty-four percent of non-parents surveyed by Pew said they planned to stay that way, an increase of seven percentage points from 2018. "It's a significant change," said Pew research associate and report author Anna Brown. Among parents surveyed, 74% said it was unlikely that they'd have any more children, a share unchanged from before the pandemic.
A majority of both parents and non-parents said "they just don't want" kids, or more kids. And for those who identified other reasons, nearly one in five non-parents said financial worries kept them from planning to have children. Among parents, it was 14%.
Financial fears are a big part of what keeps Colin Smith, 28, a graduate student studying US foreign policy and national security at American University, and his wife from having a second child. Although they want their son to have a sibling, "it feels out of reach," Smith said. Already, $20 000 a year, nearly half his wife's take-home pay, goes to cover the cost of child care for their three-year-old, he added.
"The only reason we're able to even afford that is we're super lucky and there was some family money, so we have a condo that we don't have to pay rent on," he said. "Otherwise, we couldn't even afford to have the one kid that we already have."
Smith, like Klemm and several other parents The Washington Post spoke to, is closely following the deliberations in Congress on the Build Back Better Act. "I know our lives would be a lot easier with universal pre-K, more dedicated funding for child care and child care providers, as well as paid leave for both dads and moms," he said.
(Universal pre-K,” also known as “preschool for all,” is a policy framework that gives all families with preschool-aged children the opportunity to voluntarily enrol their child in a publicly-funded pre-kindergarten care and education programme.)
On Friday morning, House Democrats passed the bill, which includes federal funding for four weeks of paid family and medical leave, invests $400 billion in child care and universal pre-K, and aims to ensure that most families will pay no more than 7% of their income on child care for children under 6. For Klemm, that cut in costs "would be enough for us to be able to have a third child," she said.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where Senator Joe Manchin has stymied previous efforts to include paid family leave.
Malka Hosner, 31, and her husband were ready to try for a fourth child in March 2020. But then the pandemic hit the US, and her husband's job became untenable. When he left to look for a new position, the family lost their health insurance, Hosner said, and their plans for the next baby ground to a halt. She'd given birth by Caesarean section for her other three kids and worried the hospital bills alone could go well into the five figures.
"Two years later, we're still not sure if we'll ever pick up on having more kids, and certainly not thinking about more than one," Hosner said, noting she once dreamed of having six children.
Economists warn that lower birthrates mean fewer workers and taxpayers to support a much larger ageing population that will depend on social security to live in retirement. To reverse, or at least slow, falling birthrates, researchers point to countries like Germany and the Czech Republic that made it easier and more affordable for people to raise a family and combine work and family life.
The US is the only high-wealth country in the world without a paid maternity leave plan and one of a handful with no paid paternity leave. It ranks at the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in the amount invested in child care. And while US parents are squeezed by high child care costs, child care workers earn poverty wages. Many in the country – particularly those in low-income areas – live in "child care deserts" where they have no quality child care option available to them.
A lack of policy, combined with unsupportive work cultures, take a steep toll on women, who are still expected to be primary caregivers, experts say. A mother's earnings take a hit after she has a child, and many mothers – especially those of young children – are still recovering from the economic and employment setbacks dealt by Covid and school closures.
The pandemic has only magnified disparities for low-income women and women of colour, who are less likely to have access to paid time off and were more likely to have been forced out of work and to have taken on more caregiving responsibilities.
Vermont has gone further than any other state in passing legislation to provide universal child care, and it was the business community who actively advocated for it. In Congress, however, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and individual large corporations are among the chief opponents of the Build Back Better Act.
For Jocelyn Moore, of Seattle, who is now seven months pregnant, deciding to have a child felt more like taking a leap of faith. She's worried about being able to be the kind of parent she wants to be and have the kind of career she wants to pursue without burning herself out.
But Moore and her husband come from different backgrounds – he from North Carolina and she from Hong Kong – and having a child meant creating their own family story. With her biological clock ticking, what helped her even consider the possibility of starting a family is the fact that Washington state is one of a handful with a paid family leave program.
Other than that, she said, "bringing a child into the world, it's almost an action of hope."