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Education Freedom and Work Opportunities as Catalysts for Increasing the Birth Rate Among Married Couples


May 25, 2023

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Pursuing new, commonsense approaches to education reform and work–family policies, from childcare and early education through higher education and workforce flexibility, will foster the conditions for family flourishing and increase birth rates for married couples. Affordable childcare from a variety of providers, including at-home options, access to high-quality K–12 education that reflects a family’s values, a higher education landscape that provides numerous routes to upward mobility, and flexible work arrangements will give couples the confidence that they can have the number of children they desire. Public policy should support families as they form and grow, and can do so through reducing government regulatory overreach, directly funding students instead of institutions, and by removing barriers to a flexible workforce. Ultimately, these reforms will support couples as they raise their children to become productive members of a free society.

The United States has experienced a rapid decline in its fertility rate, starting with the Great Recession and declining further since then. Since 2008, the U.S. fertility rate fell from 2.1—right at replacement rate—to a record low of 1.6 births in 2020.

Research at the University of Pennsylvania and McGill University suggests that two factors contributing to the falling birth rate are the decline in marriage and an increase in women’s educational attainment. Since 2006, marriage rates have declined by 15.9 percent among women ages 25 to 29. Married women are three percentage points more likely to have a child than their unmarried counterparts and are drastically less likely to have an abortion. Meanwhile, women’s bachelor’s degree attainment rose by 10 percent over the past decade and the total fertility rate of women with bachelor’s degrees was 37 percent lower than the fertility rate of women with high school degrees in 2019. The fact that fertility rates fall as women’s education and incomes rise suggests that opportunity costs—not a lack of income—is driving fertility declines, and that improved options for combining family and careers would increase family formation and raise the fertility rate.

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About the Author

W. Bradford Wilcox