Oct 15, 2006

Three cheers for the American birth rate

It's 2.1 while the EU rate is 1.47.
Falling birth rates are linked to prosperity. People in very poor countries tend to have lots of babies because they expect some of them to die in infancy, and because they need help in the fields and someone to care for them in their old age. The fertility rate in Niger and Mali, for example, is over seven children per woman.

As countries grow richer and women get educated, they have fewer children and invest more in each one. Whereas peasants in Mali cannot afford not to have kids, many Westerners fret that they cannot afford to have them. University is expensive, and if Mum (or Mom) decides to stay home, the household must forgo the salary she used to earn. Add to this the sudden halt to a life of carefree first-world hedonism, and it is no wonder that birth rates have plummeted in all rich countries.

But much less so in America. Why should this be? Religion plays a role, argues Mr Klineberg. Americans are more devout than Europeans, if church attendance is any guide, and their faith colours their worldview. Don Iloff, a spokesman for Lakewood Church (and Victoria Osteen's brother), agrees. Faith begets hope, he says, and if you have hope for the future, you are more likely to want to bring children into the world.

Polls certainly suggest that Americans are more optimistic than people in most other countries. Philip Morgan, a sociologist at Duke University, and Miles Taylor, a population expert at the University of North Carolina, cite several other possible factors. Birth rates are lower in more patriarchal rich countries, such as Japan and Italy, than in places where the sexes are more equal, such as America and Scandinavia. Perhaps the knowledge that Dad will help with the housework makes women more willing to have children.

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