The World's Family Choices Series Prompts Debate Around Family Size in US

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Total fertility rates ranked by state

The World recently aired "Family Choices: Fertility and Infertility in Africa," a series from our South Africa correspondent Anders Kelto that explored cultural and economic pressures that many parents in Africa face around family planning issues. Kelto's stories spanned issues about the perceptions of family size, attitudes of men towards contraception, and the stigma of childlessness in Africa. But what cultural, socioeconomic or health factors weigh into the size of families here in America? Public radio stations around the county picked up this debate. Stations WFAE, WVXU, WCPN, and KCUR debated the economics of family size, the changing ideals around the perfect number of children, and to what extent "choice" over family size realistically factors in for American women and parents-to-be.

The economics of family size

Dr. Maria Vandergriff-Avery, associate professor of sociology at Catawba College, offered an important perspective on WFAE's "Charlotte Talks" by pointing out that children in the US have historically gone from economic assets to economic boons. In the 1800s, Dr. Vandergriff-Avery pointed out, children were seen as economic assets, providing work and income to help their parents. Children today, however, cost parents thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of dollars. A 2011 study by the US Department of Agriculture estimated that a typical middle-income family in the United States will spend more than $200,000 to raise a child born today. The cost of having children has changed the dynamic of planning for and having children, argued Dr. Barbara Arrighi, associate professor of Sociology at Northern Kentucky University, in WVXU's "Cincinnati Edition." Because of the high cost of bearing and raising a child, Arrighi said, men are increasingly looking for an economic partner. On KCUR's Facebook page, many listeners agreed that the economics of family size have become the limiting factor in family size decisions. One child "was all I could afford or handle," wrote Anna Marie Nedeau. "Children are expensive."

What do Americans consider "the right size" family?

Many of the panel discussed the ideals around family size and number of children. The ideal of two children is the most prevalent across the country, said S. Philip Morgan, professor of sociology and director of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The second most popular choice is three children, followed by one child.

Fewer than 10 percent say they don't want any children, but this number is much larger than it has been in the past, said Lisa Neidert of the Population Studies Center on "Charlotte Talks." In fact, childlessness in the United States has doubled since 1970, a trend that illustrates the "upending of the romanticized view of the traditional family." Social pressures on women to have babies have decreased, argued Neidert. "The norms against childlessness are weakening. The decision to have a child is seen more and more as an individual choice, and the social pressure on couples and the mother is diminished now."

Many of the talk shows discussed how stigmatization around family size has in fact gone to the other extreme -- to families with many children. "Cincinnati Edition" caller Abigail, from a family with 10 children, argued that larger families are looked down upon in the US. Abigail and Julie's perspectives contrasted with the world painted by Kelto in his "Family Choices" story about the stigmatization of childless women in South Africa. Yet, despite the shift away from large families in the US, the "Sound of Ideas" panel agreed that the country was still a "pronatalist" culture. The show's host, Mike McIntyre, pointed out that you never hear the question "Why do you have kids?" You only hear, "Why don't you have kids?"

To what extent do American families actually plan family size?

In "Charlotte Talks," S. Philip Morgan pointed out that even today, half of conceptions in the United States are not planned. Even with the United States' high contraception use rate, which an August 2013 Guttmacher Institue report estimated is 62 percent of women of reproductive age, Morgan said that parents will retrospectively report that between 10 and 20 percent of children were born after they intended to have no additional children.

Dr. Alan Singer, therapist and author of “Creating Your Perfect Family Size,” voiced his disbelief on "Cincinnati Edition" how little people think of and actively plan their family size. He cited a Pew Research study that asked "What are the reasons why you had a child?" in which one-third of respondents said there was no reason why - that the conception just happened. "That sends chills down my spine," said Dr. Singer. "There is just not enough thought being given." However, because of the education around and increasing efficacy of contraception in the United States, the level of premeditation when it comes to family size is at its highest ever.

So what factors lead parents-to-be to decide how many children to have? Dr. Dynan argued that "external pressures" like family and friends are a great influence on this decision. For example, you might see how well your brother's three children play together and want to have a similar dynamic. Another deliberate choice that women and parents are increasingly making is to delay having children until later in life. In 1970, there were 168 births per 1,000 women aged 20 to 24, and only 73 for women aged 30 to 34. That dynamic today is reversed; an American woman is more likely to have a child between the ages of 30 and 34 than a decade earlier. Frech said that the cultural sequential path to adulthood has changed. "We don't have a normative transition to adulthood anymore. The completion of education, the transition to parenthood, the transition to marriage... not only do these things happen in all different orders for young adults now, there's also the difference in what constitutes adulthood. It is no longer than case that marriage and parenthood constitutes the feeling of adult status for young people."

These conversations were the result of a collaboration between local stations and The World around Anders Kelto's "Family Choices" series. 

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