Nathan Grawe’s book about demographics and higher education noted that birthrates across the US still haven’t recovered from the fall off a cliff in 2008. Now a new study shows that the largest birthrate drops are among Latina, Native American, and black women.
The implications for higher education, as Grawe’s book noted, are obvious: a birthrate drop in 2008, sustained for a decade, means a drop in 18 year olds starting in 2026 and continuing for at least a decade. That’s especially true as we make immigration more difficult. The US has had an advantage over many of its industrialized competitors in terms of age because we’ve allowed more young people to come into the country. As we reduce the number coming in, colleges will suffer a double whammy: fewer native-born students and fewer immigrants at the same time. That’s a body blow.
But the larger question is why. I’ll hazard a guess. It’s because parenthood has become insanely, stupidly, crazily expensive.
College is part of that, of course, but only part.
When the kids are very young, parents have to choose some combination of paying for daycare, imposing on family members to provide care, and/or bearing the opportunity cost when a parent stays home. As one of the only advanced countries that doesn’t provide or require the provision of paid parental leave, we saddle new parents with devastating costs at a moment in their careers at which they’re just getting started, and often not making much.
When the kids get to school age, many middle-class or aspiring parents stretch their financial resources to afford to live in a good school district. That’s a relatively new development; in the postwar era, most school districts were considered relatively acceptable. Now, the affordable middle has largely vanished, especially on the coasts. That puts parents in a difficult spot.
And that’s just during the school day and school year. That doesn’t count after-school care, vacation coverage, and summers.
Health insurance, and health care, aren’t cheap either. Family coverage is much more expensive than individual, and little kids need doctors when they need doctors.
I don’t think there’s much dispute that the drop in 2008 resulted largely from the Great Recession. The really striking finding is that even as we keep hearing about the economic recovery, there hasn’t been a birthrate recovery. And the groups with the largest drops are, broadly speaking, the groups with the most economic struggles.
It’s almost as if...bear with me...people are responding to their environment. The environment for parents just keeps getting harder, even during an economic recovery. If we’d like to see different responses, we need to alter the environment.
What would make parenting easier, economically?
It’s not hard to figure out. Paid parental leave would make a great start, followed by high-quality daycare that’s either free or very cheap. Apply the same to after-school care and all sorts of summer programs. And for heaven’s sake, making most school districts strong would tremendously reduce the pressure to buy into one of the good ones. That, alone, would be a game-changer. Universal single-payer health care would free us from the deadweight cost of marketing and cost-shifting in the healthcare sector, and would recognize, finally, that the market is based on voluntary exchange and ill health isn’t voluntary. Top it off with free community college and high-quality public four-year colleges and universities, and you’ve really got something.
Instead, the policy measures gaining traction seem to be based on The Handmaid’s Tale.
As long as we ratchet up the costs of parenthood, we’ll see more folks opt out, and more of those who opt in get stuck on the economic margins. It’s an accumulated effect of a cascade of policies, but most parents of young children can give a pretty thorough bill of particulars.
Some community colleges, such as Kingsborough, have been able to find ways to support daycare (and evening care) for the children of students who are parents. That’s huge, and I tip my cap to them. But most community colleges simply don’t have the resources to do something like that at scale; they’re already strapped.
If we don’t invest in our future, we’ll get what we pay for. History is not rife with examples of nations that have shrunk their way to greatness. Japan hit a birth dearth, combined with tightly restricted immigration, and has been spinning its wheels economically for twenty years. That’s what happens.
Educators bet on the future; it’s the entire point of what we do. I can’t help but wonder if the constant, grinding austerity to which most of education is being subjected is a form of giving up on the future. That’s certainly the effect. As an educator, I have to object. The future deserves better than we’re giving it.