Knocked Up and Knocked Down

Why America’s widening fertility class divide is a problem.

Sharon Lerner

Pregnant woman holding crying girl while doing chores.Are we experiencing a national fertility crisis?

Since the average American woman has 2.1 children, you might think we aren’t experiencing a national fertility crisis. Unlike some European countries whose futures are threatened by low birth rates, Americans, on average, produce just the right number of future workers, soldiers, and taxpayers to keep our society humming. Our families are also, on average, comfortably smaller than those in some developing countries, where high birthrates help keep women and children severely impoverished. But here’s the problem: Because the American fertility rate is an average, it obscures the fact that our country is actually more like two countries, which are now experiencing two different, serious crises.

You hear about the "haves" versus the "have-nots," but not so much about the "have-one-or-nones" versus the "have-a-fews." This, though, is how you might characterize the stark and growing fertility class divide in the United States. Two new studies bring the contrasting reproductive profiles of rich and poor women into sharp relief. One, from the Guttmacher Institute, shows that the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years. The other, by the Center for Work-Life Policy, documents rates of childlessness among corporate professional women that are higher than the childlessness rates of some European countries experiencing fertility crises.

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