The cost of child care is driving Americans away from parenthood

“Let’s move!”
“Let’s move!”
Image: REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst
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American adults are having fewer kids—or foregoing parenthood entirely. A new survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times sheds light on the dynamics behind the trend.

The survey of 1,858 men and women between 20 to 45 years old identified plenty of personal factors that influence their choices about parenthood. But high on the list was a purely financial concern: The cost of child care.

Among survey respondents who either had children or planned to have kids, about a quarter said they had (or expected to have) smaller families than they’d consider ideal. The number-one reason: For 64% of that group, “child care is too expensive.” Money factored into the equation in other ways too; 49% said they were worried about the economy, while 44% said they couldn’t afford to have more kids, and 43% cited personal financial instability. Thirty-nine percent said they didn’t have enough paid family leave, and 38% said they had no paid family leave at all.

The cost of child care isn’t just prompting Americans to have fewer kids; it’s a factor in making some adults avoid having kids at all. Roughly half of the survey respondents were not already parents. The Times asked people who didn’t want children or weren’t sure if they would have them about their motivations. The most popular reasons were wanting more leisure time (36%) and not having a partner (34%). But the poll also shows that young adults are worried that they won’t be able to afford the trappings of parenthood, like paying for child care (31%) or buying a house (24%).

The survey responses show just how expensive it is to be a parent in the US, particularly when it comes to finding child care. In 2016, according to the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America (pdf), the cost of infant child care in 49 states and the District of Columbia exceeded the standard for affordable child care, according to the threshold established by the Department of Health and Human Services. According to the DHS, the cost of childcare should not be more than 7% of the state median income for a two-parent family.

US policymakers have reason to be concerned about the trend. If the US population were to fall below replacement level, that would leave a growing elderly population to be sustained by a shrinking workforce.  In other countries facing this problem, such as Japan and Portugal, this tends to generate social anxiety, economic downturns, and a general sense of cultural malaise.

The fact that the cost of parenthood is deterring young adults from having kids means that US policies could have a real impact on the demographic downturn—notably by implementing more flexible rules and less prohibitive costs governing preschool education and child care, and by giving tax breaks to low-income working parents. We have a mountain of evidence about the policies that would help young families the most. But actually implementing them in the US is a much harder battle.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.