The New York Times is running an article about the reaction of Chinese people to the official end of the Two Child Policy. Which is mainly, "no way I'm having three children, I can't possibly afford it."
Their complaints – the expense, the lack of child care, discrimination against mothers, health insurance issues – sound just like those of Americans, who are about three times as rich as Chinese.
It baffles me that the public discourse over childbearing is dominated by talk about money and childcare, when those can't possibly be the cause of declining fertility. Nineteenth-century Americans were staggeringly poor by our standards, but they had twice as many children. Plus, richer Americans don't have more children than poor Americans, if anything the opposite. So far as I can tell, there is no meaningful relationship between parental income and the number of children people choose to have.
The biggest effect on childbearing in America is not income but religion: devout Christians and orthodox Jews have more babies than nonbelievers at every income level. News stories about the "need" for more childcare never mention this.
Since I am raising five children myself, I have some good evidence that this is possible on a middle class income. Over the years I have also met other couples with 3 to 6 children, and they don't seem very different from couples with 1 or 2 children. The mothers have careers. Nobody is starving or neglected.
We don't have more children because we choose not to. Because raising a large family requires an investment of time and emotional energy that many people prefer to use in other ways. Because some people want to give a huge amount of attention to each child in a way that is not really possible when you have five.
I think that's all ok. If freedom means anything it should mean being able to choose the kind of family you want.
The other factor that is driving down fertility is late marriage. At the height of the baby boom in the 1950s the median age at first marriage was 22 for men and just over 20 for women. Now it is 28 for women and 30 for men. When women spend half of their childbearing years single, they are going to have fewer babies. And I have never, ever seen this discussed in one of those articles arguing that women aren't having babies because they lack "affordable childcare options."
We live differently than we used to, with different priorities. This is a huge, complex change in human society, with hundreds of causes from feminism to cable television.
I think it is just silly to boil this down to "people aren't having children because they can't afford it."