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Baby Boom Or Bust

Deseret News

August 24, 2023

Salt Lake City’s lower Avenues neighborhood is a lovely change of pace after a morning walking through the central part of the city. Everything is on a more human scale up here. The streets are easier to cross, the blocks are shorter. As I study the homes and take in the neighborhood, I start to imagine my wife and I raising our own family here. That’s when I realize what I haven’t seen in my entire circuit through the neighborhood on this beautiful fall day: a baby, or any child at all.

I’ve just spoken with Natalie Gochnour, the demographics expert and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. When I brought up the United States’ low and plummeting birthrate — down to 1.7 babies per woman by that point — she gave me a shocking detail: even Utah’s birthrate had fallen below the 2.1 babies per woman needed to maintain a stable population in the long run.

So here in perhaps the hippest and most college-educated neighborhood of Salt Lake City, the numbers are becoming a reality. I run into a young couple, Isaac and Nicole. I introduce myself and mention I’m writing a book on parenting in America, and our increasing aversion to it. 

Nicole nods and says, “We don’t want kids.”

I ask if she means they don’t want kids right now, or they don’t ever want kids.

“Probably ever,” Isaac says.

I ask why not.

“We can’t afford it,” Nicole replies.

What costs in particular do they have in mind?

“Everything,” Isaac begins. “Health care. … But honestly, it’s just selfishness.”

I look at Nicole’s face, but she gives little reaction. Isaac continues: “I joke with Nicole, ‘some people are watching Teletubbies and cleaning up vomit, and we’re going to be drinking margaritas in Paris.’”

Moments later, as if I was in an overly scripted scene from a movie, a woman comes walking down the sidewalk pushing a double stroller. The two passengers are both chihuahuas. Nicole and Isaac greet their neighbor and start fawning over two furry bundles of joy.

The single greatest predictor of a place’s birthrate anywhere in the world is probably the religiosity of that place.

The encounter is both exceptional and typical. It’s typical because Americans, including Utahns, are having fewer babies every year. Americans feel that parenthood is too hard, and millennials don’t seem up to it at all — and “too expensive” and “selfish” are the two explanations I hear the most from millennials or their frustrated elders.

The encounter is odd because Utah, despite its current trend, is still probably the most pro-baby and pro-family state in America. Studies regularly show Utah as one of the best states to raise a family, and every year, Utah shows up in the top five of states for birthrates.

So there’s a bigger story to tell from this encounter in the lower Avenues. And we can start that story by analyzing Isaac and Nicole’s answers, and the reason they don’t sit right with me.

The cost of having children

Of course raising children is very expensive. Of course selfishness deters some people from becoming parents. But neither of these factors can explain the change in the birthrate and the perception that parenting is just less doable than in the past. 

If the cost of raising kids was the real obstacle, people with more money would have more kids, but that’s not the reality. Americans are richer than we used to be and yet we have fewer children. The birthrate was far lower in 2019 than it was during the great recession. The wealthiest countries have low birthrates and the poorest countries have high birthrates. Americans in the top income quintile generally have fewer children than those in the bottom four.

And blaming “selfishness” for a falling birthrate makes no more sense than blaming gravity for an increase in plane crashes. If we are to explain America’s shift away from family formation, we need to ask what has changed over the past 10, 20 or 30 years. And here in the Avenues, two of my interlocutors give me a clue that points toward a more likely culprit in the Baby Bust.

“Super-LDS” is how Isaac describes his Latter-day Saint upbringing. Nicole was raised by Polish immigrants whose Catholic faith was central to their lives. Neither is religious at all now, they tell me, and this is key: Gochnour explains Salt Lake’s falling birthrate by pointing to Salt Lake’s increasing secularism. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer make up a majority of the city’s residents, and that’s why the state is no longer reproducing at replacement level. Yet, Utah is nevertheless the most religious state in the country, and that explains why Utah is still arguably the most pro-family state in the country.

The single greatest predictor of a place’s birthrate is probably the religiosity of that place. (The best measure of religiosity for all sociological purposes is not professed belief or frequency of prayer, but religious attendance.) This correlation is true on the individual level, too. Americans who attend church, synagogue or mosque services at least once a week have birthrates well above 2.1. The nonreligious have birthrates well below 1.5 and falling fast. The moderately religious are in the middle.

There’s corroborating evidence on the global level. Israel has by far the highest birthrate among wealthy countries, averaging nearly 3 babies per woman. A Jerusalem shopkeeper named Oren with four kids gave me a simple explanation: “Mitzvah!” which translates as “commandment.” God’s first commandment in Genesis was “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Likewise, at the Church of Jesus Christ’s seminary for high school students in Farmington, Utah, a teacher named Jake tells me, “In our religion we’re encouraged to have as many kids you can provide for.” It’s easy to conclude that Israelis have more kids than Europeans do because Israelis obey the mitzvah, and that Church of Jesus Christ teachings on marriage and family are the reasons for Utahns’ devotion to family. 

But the real story is probably a lot more complicated. The interaction between religion and baby-making is not as simple as mitzvahs, dogmas or church teachings. And you can tell because secular Jews in Israel have more babies than do the average European, and, as Gochnour tells me, the Catholics in America who have the most children are the Catholics in Utah. “It’s in the air,” she says.

It’s not quite in the air, though. It’s in the culture.

An infrastructure for families

It’s a gorgeous sunny day in Woodland Park in Farmington when I run into Ellen, Shea and Stephanie, three Latter-day Saint home-schooling moms. The women have in the past pursued careers or owned businesses, and now they describe their full-time occupation as helping their children become well-rounded, fully-functioning, happy adults.

On this score, Ellen says, “I’m grateful for the values of the church.”

Values are a great place to start when asking why Utah and Israel might be more family-friendly than other places in the U.S. and the wealthy world. But “values” is a bit of a slippery concept. The moms in Woodland Park — and Woodland Park itself — offer some more concrete explanations.

The interaction between religion and baby-making is not as simple as mitzvahs, dogmas or church teachings. It’s in the culture of a place.

Ellen, Shea and Stephanie go on about this park, other nearby parks, and how many amazing outdoor activities there are in the area. This isn’t a mere nicety. The parks, trails and mountains materially make parents’ lives better, in part because of policies and institutions that help parents utilize them.

The women enroll their children in My Tech High, a sort of remote home-school institution that operates only in a few states. My Tech High provides resources for home-schooling parents, plus around a $1,000 reimbursement per student. Shea mentions that she’s planning on using some of that money to cover snowboard lessons. To my Mid-Atlantic big-city ears that at first sounds laughably stereotypical of the Mountain West. Snowboarding as part of high school?! We played real sports, which had balls, teammates and scoreboards.

But as our conversation continues and we talk about how easy it is for a big family (my wife and I have six children) to lose control of our calendar, the snowboarding lessons become more appealing. Middle-class and upper-middle-class parents in the Washington, D.C., region where I live and the New York City region where I grew up easily fall into the Travel Team Trap. Suddenly your child is 12 years old and playing lacrosse year-round, including winter workouts in some expensive gym that’s 45 miles away. If you have more than one kid, say goodbye to family dinners or even summer vacations. Your kids’ activity schedule determines the family schedule, which reflects a value that no parent wants to communicate to their children: That family is what you do when you have nothing else going on.

If I could affordably teach all my kids (and myself) to snowboard, and we could hit the mountains easily, that would be a much more family-friendly way to give my children the benefits of youth sports. It takes not only mountains to make this possible, but also the sort of physical and cultural infrastructure that Davis County has. 

That’s one simple example of the norms, physical environment and institutions Utah has that can make parenting easier. 

Public schools provide something else of immeasurable value: a system that doesn’t actively work to undermine parents’ values. 

Students at Farmington High School, typical of many Utah high schools, can take a break during the school day to attend religious education classes, which include seminary for the Latter-day Saint students. These students do not even have to cross a street to get to the class, as the Farmington seminary building is on a lot adjacent to the high school. The seminaries are fully funded by church tithing, which means a Latter-day Saint couple in Farmington — as in many places around Utah — can easily give their children a well-rounded education, including religious education, without paying for it besides through their taxes and their tithing.

Many parents in America who would love big families opt for smaller families because they cannot afford a half-dozen K-12 tuitions.

The religious family infection

“Jewish school tuition is a contraceptive,” is how multiple parents in Kemp Mill — a modern Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Maryland — described their plight. The community is so Jewish that worshippers at Kemp Mill Synagogue and the nearby Young Israel Shomrai Emunah synagogue observe the prohibition on driving on the Sabbath. That means the members all live within walking distance.

In this tight-knit community, many of these Orthodox families are put off by the left-wing political agenda and antipathy toward traditional values that characterizes Montgomery County Public Schools, and so if they are not up for home-schooling, a smaller-than-desired family is the only option.

Despite the downward force exerted by the costs of Jewish education, large families are much more common in Kemp Mill than in any other similar D.C. suburb. While we simply just trace this to the first mitzvah in the Garden of Eden, there’s a lot more going on here than religious teaching. 

“There is an element of contagiousness,” Yair, a Kemp Mill dad of five, explains. “We live in these tight-knit communities where your neighbors are all having them.” Yair is echoing Gochnour’s explanation: fecundity is just in the air.

Home-schooling is more common in Kemp Mill than in other suburbs, and so forming a co-op — formal or informal — is much easier here. Simply the presence of stay-at-home mothers is massively pro-family. Stay-at-home parents make life easier for other stay-at-home parents in a hundred ways. Your two-year-old will have more playmates during the day, your local businesses will cater to parents and tots in the daytime hours.

In all these ways, religious teachings filter down to build infrastructure that supports family formation. But maybe the biggest factor is just what seems normal.

“Most people that I know in our age group have three or four,” one mother named Ava tells me. “And then there’s another group, and they all have five, and they’re all friends with each other, and five is a great number. Five is just what they do.”

The most interesting thing about big religious broods of four and five kids is that they seem to foster moderate-sized secular broods of two and three kids. That is, the religious families seem to infect the less religious families with the germ of fecundity. The most striking example of this is probably the secular Jews in Israel.

Fostering a pro-family norm

“God has nothing to do with our children-making decisions,” a secular dad named Tsachi tells me while pushing two children in a stroller around Tel Aviv. His third child is home with his wife.

Tsachi points to Jewish history and current geopolitics as to why secular Jews in Israel average two children each, more than Catholics in Europe do. A more generalizable explanation is that religion helped create an ecosystem that is fertile for families.

Picture a garden at the center of which is a large tree called religion. That tree not only feeds those who eat its fruit, but it also creates shade and habitat for small animals. The soil is altered by the effects of this tree and other plants spring up, which brings in more animals in the air, on the ground, and beneath the soil.

Eventually, you have a lush garden, and even those who never touch the tree of religion, or who eat the fruit of a different tree benefit from the ecosystem created by that first tree.

This is how we can think of religion’s effects on families and babies. Some of its effects are direct, but many are indirect, acting through culture.

You can see that culture in Rexburg, Idaho, home to Brigham Young University-Idaho. Near College Avenue and Main Street in Rexburg you’ll find two baby stores, a diamond shop and two bridal shops. More importantly, on campus you’ll find “mothers lounges” (nursing rooms), junior men handing their baby off to a buddy at the student union, teachers granting extensions to students with a sick child, and the social acceptability of getting married as an undergraduate.

Again, religion is the first seed that creates this ecosystem, but all of these cultural institutions do at least as much as church teaching to promote family and make it easier.

So what’s the real reason? Why do so many millennials feel like parenting is not for them? Why are Americans having fewer babies every year? And why is Utah still resisting this rush towards childlessness?

The story seems to be this: America is becoming less religious. Religion is pro-family not simply because it preaches family and parenthood, but because it fosters norms, infrastructure and culture that makes parenting easier. An America with less religion is an America where those norms, infrastructure and culture are crumbling, and so parenting becomes harder and raising big families seems weirder.

If we are to reverse this slide, we need that pro-family culture back. We’re never going to make family “affordable” and we’re never going to eliminate selfishness. What we can do is build a culture that makes the sacrifice required by parents a bit smaller, and make the idea of sacrifice seem a bit less foreign.