As Zero Population Growth, we garnered public attention from the late 1960s into the 1970s with our “Stop at Two” mantra urging Americans to consider limiting the size of their families. By 1977, this milestone was achieved. Today, the U.S. is well below that level with the average family having 1.73 children. Given our own history, how do we approach the $1.9 billion coronavirus relief legislation signed by President Biden, which includes a dramatic increase in child tax credits?
Do we criticize it because the measure may incentivize having more children? Or do we applaud it because it can help meet population challenges while improving children’s lives at the same time? We’ve come to understand that lifting the next generation out of poverty is key to our population stabilization mission.
We’re confronted globally with continued unsustainable rapid population growth—most of it in the poorest places on earth. The UN projects that Africa, where 40% of people live on less than $1.90/day, will soar from about 1 billion people today to more than 4 billion by 2100. Here in the U.S., one in ten of us live in poverty. Are there key factors that can lead people everywhere to choose smaller families? And what can we do to make those outcomes more likely?
There is strong evidence that Americans with higher incomes tend to have smaller families. The Guttmacher Institute reports: “The rate of unintended pregnancy among women with incomes less than 100% of the poverty was 112 per 1,000 in 2011, more than five times the rate among women with incomes of at least 200% of poverty (20 per 1,000 women).” With 3,791,712 U.S. births in 2018, and given that more than a third of U.S. births are unintended (37%, according to a 2012 CDC survey of new mothers), we can estimate that there were over 1.4 million unintended births in 2018. This outweighs our net immigration of 595,000 by more than a two-to-one ratio. If you’re looking for the leading source of U.S. population growth, it’s important to look first at unintended births.
Expansion of child tax credits could prove a great benefit for society by dramatically reducing the poverty rate. It could also help reduce population pressures. When you live in a state of constant worry about eviction, when your cupboards are bare, when you can’t pay the bills, and when you barely make enough money to get by even with two jobs, it’s hard to make positive decisions about anything—including reproductive matters.
Consider the nearly 12 million U.S. children who are trapped in poverty. Often, they suffer from poor health due to lack of adequate nutrition and medical care. Even before they begin school, they can lag behind other students. Their parents are often so stressed out from working long hours that they can’t give their children needed care and attention. This is a prescription for social inequality at every level.
Even leaving aside the deep personal toll here, this represents an extraordinary waste of potential for a society that needs sophisticated, productive workers to compete in the Information Age. Children trapped in poverty tend to drop out of school and not advance their education.
More education strongly correlates with later childbearing. The New York Times reports that “Women with college degrees have children an average of seven years later than those without…” Consider “Sarah,” who gives birth when she is 17, and “Beth,” who doesn’t do so until she is 34. Beth has essentially skipped an entire generation, which has a major impact in terms of reducing population growth.
The legislation signed by President Biden will slash the poverty rate for children in the United States by nearly 50%. This will mean healthier children. It will mean they’ll advance farther in school. Down the road, it means they will, on average, postpone starting families. And it means they will be far better equipped to make sound, reasonable reproductive decisions.
The phrase “population stabilization” doesn’t appear in this landmark law, but no matter. At Population Connection, we’re interested in results. We must shift from a vicious cycle of poverty and rapid population growth to a virtuous cycle of healthy well-educated citizens who can make thoughtful decisions and population stabilization. This won’t solve every problem, but it’s essential to achieving a sustainable future for all.
updated on May 10, 2021