The following is a conversation between Profectus co-editors Ben Wilterdink and Clay Routledge with Angela Rachidi. Dr. Rachidi is a senior fellow and the Rowe Scholar in opportunity and mobility studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she studies poverty and the effects of federal safety-net programs on low-income people in America. Before joining AEI, Dr. Rachidi spent almost a decade researching benefit programs for low-income populations in New York City. She is the author of numerous articles and studies related to the relationship between employment and poverty, specifically the effectiveness of government programs and policies on increasing employment and family well-being. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Wilterdink: Thank you for listening to another edition of the Profectus Podcast, brought to you by Profectus Magazine. I’m Ben Wilterdink, and today my co-editor, Clay Routledge, and I are joined by Dr. Angela Rachidi. Dr. Rachidi is a senior fellow and the Rowe Scholar in opportunity and mobility studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she studies poverty and the effects of the federal safety net programs on low-income people in America. Before joining AEI, Dr. Rachidi spent almost a decade researching benefits programs for low-income populations in New York City. She is the author of numerous articles and studies, but today we’re going to focus our comments on her most recent report, “The Evidence on Family Affordability.” So, Angela, thank you for joining us today.
Angela Rachidi: Well, thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Ben Wilterdink: Great. Well, I want to get started by just giving some broad context for this conversation and about family formation in America. So, for the two people who might not know, at a very high level, as you note in your paper, after a 50-year decline, marriage rates have now hit a record low. And furthermore, rates of fertility have also persistently been below the 2.1 kids per woman replacement rate since about 2007. These are trends that a lot of people have observed and are talking about. Can you walk us through just why that is something we should be concerned about at all?
Angela Rachidi: Oh, sure. Yeah. And actually, I mean, I’ll add too, this isn’t, at least in terms of the declining fertility rate, not unique to the United States. Actually, there’s some Asian countries in particular that are probably in worse shape than even we are. And when I say worse shape, I guess that speaks to your question of why is this an issue? Why should we care? I think there’s actually some competing views on that. There’s one view that actually thinks, “Oh, maybe it’s not such a bad thing thinking about it in terms of population and climate and taking care of the earth.” But I actually kind of fall into the other camp where it is concerning. So the reason getting below replacement rate can be concerning is because you think of, I guess there’s a variety of reasons, but the main one in my mind is really kind of an economic and prosperity one.
If you think specifically about the US, if you have a declining population, you think about who is going to take care of and support the population that already exists, especially in the US, kind of the aging population. So you need young people, you need population to fuel economic growth and fuel that prosperity for everyone. And we can see in some countries that had trends that even predated the US, like Japan for example, they’ve had a very low fertility rate for a while. They’re just starting to experience some of those problems now in terms of very slow economic growth, although there’s other things contributing to it, but certainly low fertility rates are one. Slow economic growth and then a lot of challenges just trying to keep up with taking care of an aging population. So those are just a few reasons, and there’s certainly a lot of other more societal quality of life type issues, but I would say the economic concerns are probably the most prominent.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I would add to those [concerns], which connects with economics that… I’ve thought about this a lot. When we think about flourishing, we think about growth, expansion, what does society or culture look like in terms of the motivation to solve problems to improve the world when there aren’t children or a world without children? I mean, that sounds dystopian. I’m not saying there’s not going to be any children, but you know what I mean? It’s like, when you see kids and families, it’s a constant reminder that there’s a future beyond yourself worth caring about. And so, I think that angle’s interesting too. The first group you mentioned that maybe are like, “Oh, it’s fine if we retract because of climate change.” I don’t think they really thought through like, well, who’s going to care about the planning? If we’re retracting as a species, then that actually might make us more hedonistic or more impulsive or more centered on the present. I just thought that those societal issues can obviously connect to the economics as well.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, no, that’s a really good point. And I think you’re exactly right. I mean it’s just kind of human nature to always want to improve and move things forward and leave things better for the next generation. And you’re right, if that’s not a realistic goal that there’s going to be that next generation, it does kind of just shift to the way you think and shift motivations.
Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, yeah. And that can definitely be a big challenge, especially as we think about the things that we care about in terms of innovation and the things that make our own lives better too. So this is definitely something that people have been researching pretty often, talking about a lot. Probably the most common explanation for this that I get just anecdotally in some of my conversations with people and peers of mine is that it’s too expensive. It’s just, it’s way too expensive to raise a family now.
So, for instance, just in 2021, Money Magazine had a headline, “Millennials aren’t having kids because it’s too expensive.” Morning Consult ran a 2020 poll that said, nearly three in five childless millennials say a reason they don’t have kids is because it’s too expensive to raise them. I can tell you, everyone probably knows this, but from personal experience, childcare is a very expensive cost. So I know that’s at least one big part of it. So thinking through that, what do you think of that narrative? It’s clearly something that has gained some cultural purpose or purchase in our society, so what do you make of that?
Angela Rachidi: Yeah. So those headlines that you mentioned are actually exactly why I wrote the paper that you mentioned earlier, the report on family affordability, because I agree that when people first identify concerns about declining fertility, it’s natural to want to identify the cause. And overwhelmingly, you hear that it’s a financial one, that people are just saying it’s too expensive. So my motivation for writing the report I wrote was to take a very high level look at, well, has it actually gotten more expensive to raise a family? And to make a very long and complicated story short, again, I looked kind of [at] a high level, but in my view, actually, I don’t think there’s strong data to show that things have actually gotten more expensive. But that doesn’t mean those polls are wrong. I think what has changed is people’s perceptions about what maybe are necessary goods and what people want out of life.
And by that, I mean maybe in the past, I’ll just give a quick example, one car was maybe sufficient for a household and families figured out how to get by with just one car. Now, two or even three cars are necessary. Some people might say, “Oh, well yeah, but now we have two workers, so we have to have two cars.” And yes, that is true, but I think the idea of people’s preferences for maybe slightly more luxurious cars or cars that make people more comfortable, that actually, in my view, if you really look at the data, is what’s driving these increased costs.
Housing is another example. I mean, the square footage per person, if you look at data, we just have much, much larger homes than in the past 20, 50 years. So I think people’s preferences certainly have changed, and it’s driving increased costs. So, to the extent that that reflects a lack of affordability, I think, is debatable. It depends on really what you define as affordable. Should we be thinking about affordability in terms of meeting everybody’s preferences, or should we be thinking about it in terms of meeting people’s basic needs? And I think that is where an interesting debate can be had.
Clay Routledge: That’s a really good point. I mean, certainly it’s the case. I’m one of five kids, and I remember my brother and I shared a bedroom. The house I grew up in with a family of seven is smaller than the house that my wife and I live in with our toy poodle. Because our kids are in their 20s, they’ve moved out. That perception, that’s just to say we’re all guilty of it, I think, at some level of changing preferences. And then you have to remind yourself there’s a difference between what you want and what you need.
Angela Rachidi: Right. And I always think of it too, whenever we have this discussion about declining fertility and then if the cause is financial, the conversation then naturally leads to, “Well, what can we do about that?” And then that naturally leads to, “Well, let’s have a government response.” So from my mind, that question of, is this a desire to meet people’s preferences or a desire to meet their basic needs is crucially important when you think of what is a potential solution. Because if it’s a government solution, if it’s government intervention, then you start talking about redistribution. So taking taxpayer dollars, redistributing it. And I think the answer to that question, are we thinking about redistributing dollars to meet people’s preferences, or are we thinking of redistributing dollars to meet people’s basic needs? That to me becomes a very important kind of policy question. And then you just think of all the consequences of more government spending and more redistribution. And it starts to make the question and answer less clear-cut than I think a lot of people would initially think.
Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, yeah. I mean, once you start getting into what the government role could be, should be, preferences versus needs is definitely a conversation worth having. As you’re sort of describing these changes and preferences, I wonder, it occurs to me, a lot of people I know, and I think this is reflected in the data as well, are getting married later. That seems to be a trend. And they probably are having more of their life happening when they are either single and usually making that money and not having the dependence, or where they’re in a relationship and they’re in a dual income space for a longer period of time before they get married and before they have kids.
So I wonder how much of the change in preference is based around the fact that you’re living at a particular lifestyle, at a particular income level with no dependents, and then you’re kind of looking at it and saying, “What do I need to do to continue my current lifestyle and income level while also adding those dependents?” So do you think that could be a part of it? Do you think that that’s something that’s going on here as well?
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, I definitely do. I mean, I think it’s partly that, people [are] just getting married later. But then, the reason people tend to get married later is largely because of the pursuit of education, and especially among women. So if you really think about it, we always look to the 1960s or 1950s kind of comparing, I mean it was just a very different environment for women in particular, just around what kind of society expected from them. Obviously, that has shifted greatly over the past half century, which has been a very positive thing for women in terms of getting higher education, the opportunity for careers, the earning potential for women. But that does mean that women have delayed marriage and then also as a, I guess, consequence of that, delay childbearing.
So I think you’re exactly right that over the last probably 40 plus years, we’ve sent this message to young girls, women in particular, about there’s opportunity for you, get a career, earn. And it does, I think, change what the expectations are for life. And again, all positive things, but I think we have to recognize that those positive things do have other effects, and we just have to think about how those other effects or how we can deal with some of those other effects, or even have other kind of counter messaging about what people in general, men and women, really want to get out of life, and how children and family play into that.
Clay Routledge: So when people say it’s unaffordable, the way we’re framing it, it sounds rational. They’re doing some kind of analysis. They’ve got a spreadsheet, and they’re running the numbers, and they’re like, “I can’t afford to have a family.” Obviously when we start talking about your argument of, well, this is probably more of a perception than it maps onto, like an objective reality, then you start to think about, well, it’s not just rational, there’s an emotional component perhaps. We also know that young people are more anxious today than in previous generations. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are on, you could say this is an economic anxiety, but it might speak to a broader anxiety, which is just like it takes guts to put yourself out there and start a family. I mean, there’s obviously a certain level of health risk, of course it’s safer than it was in the past, but it’s a little bit of you have to embrace uncertainty, you have to embrace a little bit of chaos in your life.
So I’m wondering if you think that this really is a specific perception about its unaffordable, or there’s a broader category of like, young people are just more risk averse, and starting a family involves letting go a little bit of control and a willingness to take risks and have an adventure in life, I guess, so to speak. And that kind of anxiety might be influencing their perceptions. And if that’s the case, then from my perspective, it might be hard to persuade them with the type of data you bring to bear because it’s like, that’s activating a more rational mode of thinking. But they’re kind of terrified. I mean, when I talk to young people, they act like they’re terrified to have kids because of climate change, because of the cost, because there’s a growing life form in their body. You hear all these different things, and it does seem to be like there’s a more general anxiety around becoming a parent.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, I do. I think you’re exactly right. I think there is a psychology to it. I mean, the hard part is, what data do we have to really support that? You cited, there’s some polls, you can ask people. But I think that what you’re describing is kind of a societal shift we’ve seen in younger generations. And I do think it’s playing out just in the decisions and the risks that they take. I think also, there’s been a shift, and you can see this in some of the data, but again, it’s hard things to measure, but there’s just been this shift in people expecting to be comfortable in their lives all the time. And to be honest, I think the Great Recession played into this a little bit because there was such a robust government response, and the expectation was, “Oh, government’s going to jump in if you lost your job.” I think it started in the Great Recession, certainly during the pandemic, that was the message that was sent.
And I’ll say, on the economic side, not necessarily on the public health side, but on the economic side it was like, “Oh, we don’t want anybody to experience any discomfort at all in terms of your household finances, so government’s going to jump in and help you.” So I think that does set this mindset of just being very risk averse, expecting everything to be easy, to be comfortable. And certainly, getting married and having children is not always comfortable. It’s not always easy. And I do think it creates a lot of anxiety. And then I’ll just add or finish with, I think that there’s no counter message. I think that that has been missing too, that you don’t have a lot of stories about just the benefits of having children, having a supportive family, the benefits of being married, having a lifelong partner. I think sometimes those messages get a little bit missed when we’re just talking about how unaffordable everything is and how all of these things create barriers to your life rather than how they enhance them.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, I think that’s right. It reminds me of every now and then you see a business publication publish some type of piece about here’s how much it costs women and lifetime earnings to have kids. And it’s very like, “You’re losing.” And it’s like, well, how do you calculate all the benefits of having a family? My own research on meaning in life, for instance, I mean, by far, the most prominent source of meaning in life when you ask people is family. It’s like, well, that doesn’t come out of thin air. You have to actually keep creating that. So I think, on the economic side, there is this interesting cold rational, kind of like, “Oh, your lifetime [earnings]…” or, “You could have more wealth if you didn’t have kids.” And it’s just like that’s such an incomplete picture of what it means to have a fulfilling life that, I agree with you, that messaging is very incomplete and odd.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah. Well, and I’ll just add too, I mean I mentioned this before about the changing messages for women, but I almost wonder if there was sort of an overcorrection that the message for so long, I mean I grew up in the ’80s and the ’90s, and the message certainly was women can do everything, go to college, get the job. It was really an economic message and equality that you can earn just as much as men can. You hear all the information about the wage gaps. And I do think that, again, all of that was very positive so that women could succeed, but I do wonder if maybe there was an over-correction.
And in place of the drive to achieve economically and from a career perspective, the idea of having a fulfilling life that involves family and involves children, that message was never sent. And I think that that, for women in particular, probably has held them back from the perspective of having that fulfilling holistic life. Certainly, women are doing very well on the economic side, pursuing careers, earning potential, but you do see some evidence of women who maybe have remained childless, things like that, that they do feel like something’s missing in their life. So I think we need a more well-rounded message.
Ben Wilterdink: It strikes me as very challenging to get that across though, because we’re in a context, I mean, you’re at the American Enterprise Institute, we do work at the Archbridge Institute on upward mobility, and the method of communication is this rational, generally more numbers-based, data-centered, data-driven, and that just does not seem to fit super well with this other side. So if there is going to be that counter narrative or some of the other messaging, or not even counter necessarily, just kind of rounding out to make sure that people are getting a bit more of a holistic look, I think that’s something that people used to see maybe more in their lives, they used to experience it more in their own lives or see people around them with that.
It makes me think about the declines in traditional religion, really, really sharp declines in things like church attendance where that vision of what that family life is, is just missing from a lot of people’s experience. As a millennial or Gen Z, they might not know anyone who’s ever set foot in a church, let alone gone to a family picnic with other families and things. So do you think that that plays into it, where they’re not getting that message, it’s hard to communicate that message using reason and data in the way that we might usually try to persuade people or send messages, and that experiential side of it, it’s sort of lacking? Do you think there’s something to that? That seems to me to be a major challenge of mounting a response.
Angela Rachidi: I do, yes. And I actually touched on this a little bit in the report I wrote, because I touched on it in the sense of discussing social capital. Social capital is kind of what you describe in terms of having connections in the community institutions like churches, school associations, things like that, that kind of keeps you connected to other people who are outside of your family. So there’s some evidence to suggest that social capital has kind of declined over the past several years, even couple of decades, evidenced by declining churchgoing, for example, people kind of express that they have fewer connections. So following your train of thought, if you believe that social capital has declined and people are less connected to each other, I think you’re exactly right. That kind of modeled behavior of family, having children doing things that families do, people just aren’t as exposed to it as they used to be.
And then people, kind of reflect preferences, again, as people move out of central cities, get the bigger homes, bigger yards, it’s just there’s less interaction that people have. So in my report, I kind of make both arguments that, one, that actually probably raises the costs of raising a family because you don’t have that network to rely on. And then in the same respect, because you don’t have those connections, I think to your point, it’s not kind of modeling family behavior that then can be passed down to the next generation. So I do definitely think that’s a piece of it, but to your point, it is a harder thing to measure and a hard thing to ask about.
Clay Routledge: Yeah. I mean, there’s so many things in there that are, I agree, hard to measure. But I mean, here’s a good example, and I don’t know if this is a real trend or just something I see online, but child-free weddings. It just seems like there’s more and more where people are not very… Or you see stories about kids crying on an airplane and people being upset. The society’s becoming less tolerant of the chaos that children bring. I was in a movie theater not that long ago, and to be honest, it was a kids’ movie, a movie that kids should see. I wasn’t at a rated-R movie. And I remember afterwards somebody complaining about it. It was a younger person that said something about, “Oh, that’s good birth control,” because there were kids yelling in the theater or whatever. And I was kind of taken aback a little, because I had the opposite response. During the movie when I heard kids laughing and yelling and whatever, I was like, “This is awesome. These kids are really happy.” They’re bringing joy to this experience.
Again, I could see the difference if I was at the opera or at a rated-R movie or something that was clearly an adult-themed event, that would’ve been inappropriate maybe to bring children to. But this was a PG movie that families would go to. But I don’t know if that’s a widespread thing, but it does seem like, just from my own anecdotal experience, I see less tolerance for the messiness that children bring to society. And if that’s true, that that is widespread, then that would also discourage, because people would be like, “Well, why would I want to do that?” This isn’t something that people are going to look at as a net positive. They’re going to look at it as a burden to society, if that makes sense.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I have to just laugh, based on what you just described, because I have four kids. So I’m a sample of one, but have experienced much of that intolerance in my life to just being with my kids, from being at the park, being yelled at, “Why don’t you watch your kid?”, to various things?” Yeah, I completely agree. Again, sample of one. But I do think that society actually makes it harder to have kids just from the perspective of, with four kids, it’s hard to even just get a hotel room anymore because they have all these rules about how many people can be in a room. And just various things like the airplane is another one and the airport.
Yeah. So I think the interesting thing though is, where does that intolerance come from? Because people still are having kids, and most people that you interact with, they might have older kids, but people still have exposure to kids. So yeah, I’m not sure where that intolerance comes from, assuming it’s there, like you said, I guess we don’t have a great way to measure it, but I certainly do get this sense that is true and something that’s out there. And it likely does play into this kind of trend that we’re seeing in terms of fertility and just people expressing an unwillingness to have kids.
Clay Routledge: Yeah. Maybe you will all remember or know what I’m talking about more than I do, but it reminds me, I did see something not that long ago, maybe it’s from the Institute of Family Studies, I can’t remember, that was like, we tend to describe fertility in terms of the mean or the average like, “Here’s the average number of kids.” But that could mean there’s a bunch of people having three or four kids, and a bunch of people having zero. Right? So the distribution might tell a different story.
I’m just curious if… And I bring that up because that speaks to this issue. It could be there are subcultures or spaces in which people are having a bunch of kids, or obviously it’s a pro-natal environment and you’re used to being in spaces like that, but then it could be a part of our society really just has no kids or one kid. So there might be almost like a polarizing effect that doesn’t map on to politics cleanly, but it’s not anti-natal versus pro-natal, but you know what I mean, like the childless versus child environments. I don’t know. Am I making that up, or do you know what I’m talking about, that report thing?
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, no, I do recall seeing some data, so I’m almost positive that I remember seeing that the percentage of people who go childless, that has increased.
Clay Routledge: Yeah.
Angela Rachidi: So people not having kids at all has increased. But to your point, I don’t think that explains it all. And I think people are having fewer kids. But it gets back to the point about people getting married later and just not having the time to have maybe as many kids as they had. But to your point, I mean there’s certainly still parts of the country, like Utah for example, it’s a very Mormon-based culture. They still have higher average number of kids per married family or per woman or however you want to measure it. So there still obviously is a subpopulation, to use your word, that kind of believes in having a lot of kids.
So I think that that’s important to point out too, because it’s not all about just people not wanting to have kids. I think part of this is people getting married later so they can’t quite meet their fertility goals, and just other things that are happening in people’s lives that kind of delay that, that then they can’t quite reach those goals. But then, some people are reaching those goals, so it’s certainly a more complicated issue than just one answer.
Ben Wilterdink: Yeah. As you’re describing the movie theater situation and some of the other things that people being more irritated with kids, it makes me think, a word that we hear a lot now is “atomized,” where people are very much kind of islands unto themselves. It almost does seem like if you couple that with a sense of like, “Well, that’s your choice. That’s your choice, but it should also be your responsibility.” I’m kind of here in my siloed bubble by myself, and you’re bumping in my bubble with your kids being loud or something. And it seems to me that might be kind of a result of just the way that we’ve gone culturally, where it’s a little bit more individualized. It’s less people viewing themselves as part of a community and there are kids in that community, and that’s a healthy and good thing.
It just makes me think that people are just not exposed to it as much, and so it’s jarring when they are. It’s something abnormal, kind of puncturing in on what they’re getting at. I mean, I’m happy to have you respond to that as well, but I do want to make sure that we touch on this idea about marriage and people getting married a little bit later and there’s some other things that go along with that. So I’ll let you weigh in on that too, if you think there’s something to that.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah. Well, in terms of the marriage question, I mean that to me, it does, in my mind, reflect a kind of societal shift in just what marriage is. Institute for Family Studies, Brad Wilcox is a colleague of mine at AEI, he kind of writes a lot about this, just expectations around marriage and how that has really changed over time. And again, it’s probably a positive thing, but the expectation for marriage now is you find your soulmate, you find this person that fulfills every potential desire you have in your life. Whereas at least historically, and in other cultures, that hasn’t always been what marriage is about. Not that one way is better or worse. It’s just we have to have recognized that when that changes, it does kind of change then who sees marriage as a realistic kind of goal for them individually.
So yes, as marriage declines, that certainly has very profound effects on family formation. And I think it could be, messaging obviously plays another role, but economics plays a role as well. Marriage has become less necessary from an economic perspective, again, because women have their own earning potential. So if marriage is not necessary from an economic perspective, it does force people to think about what is the purpose of marriage. And I think that’s still up for individual interpretation, what that is. And I think that definitely has contributed to probably less marriage in our society.
Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, just following up on that, I recently saw a discussion between Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves with your AEI colleague Ian Rowe, who we had on this podcast not too long ago. But they were talking about this issue about marriage. And Richard was talking about some of the data around how marriage has transitioned from more of a cornerstone model where you do it earlier and you build a life together around that, versus a capstone model, which is, I’m generalizing, but it’s kind of, “My debt is paid off. Maybe I’ve paid off my student loans. I’m decently advanced in my career. Maybe I’ve already got a house.” And then getting married is kind of like, “Okay, I’ve got everything in order now, I can put that bow on the top there and do that.”
And that seems to me to be very related to the economic changes. I think the statistic he quoted was something like, in 1970, it was like 13% of women were earning more than men. And more recently around today, I don’t know the exact date, but it was very recent, something like 40% of women were earning more than men. So still less than half, but that’s a pretty big change. That’s a pretty big change in the span of one generation. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are some other things that are changing along with that.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, I mean I completely agree, and that certainly I think contributes to why we see marriage happening less and happening later. Yeah, as I listen to you, I think the question for me is just, is that something we need to change? Or yeah, I don’t know, does that evolve? Because obviously you have women who have had more economic success, so it changes what makes marriage necessary. So do we just accept those changes? Which I think is what Richard Reeve’s argument generally is, it’s kind of like, “Wow, it is what it is, so you accept those changes.” Or do we try to make marriage more attractive to people? I think that’s more of the Brad Wilcox argument, that, hey, we need to convince people that getting married is a good thing, and they should do it, and more people should do it. So I actually don’t know the answer to that. I can certainly see a case to be made for both sides.
Clay Routledge: I mean, that does get to… I want to make sure we’re able to talk about possible solutions, at least to the… I think you could say, even if you wanted to be agnostic about promoting one type of lifestyle or decision, it seems like at a minimum, it would be good to correct errors and thinking. So, going back to your paper on the affordability of families. If that’s the barrier for some people, if they think, “Well, I can’t afford to have a family,” not only does that have obvious economic and public policy implications because of what you have, and I think we’re seeing this on both the left and the right, is some kind of effort for the government to release programs or whatever to make it more affordable.
So if that calculus is wrong, then that might steer us in a direction of thinking public policy could solve a problem but can’t. So if it’s not going to be some type of public policy, because it actually is more affordable than people think, what do you think we can do to, one, change the view that it’s unaffordable and bring people’s perceptions closer to reality? And two, assuming we think it’s good for people to get married and have kids and start families, what do you think we could do to change that messaging, that there are benefits to this, there is good from this?
Angela Rachidi: Yeah. I don’t think there’s a big role for government. I will say that. I don’t really buy into the argument that costs have increased so much that families are unaffordable, and therefore, government has to come in and subsidize family formation. I’m not convinced by the data that is necessarily true. So I think it is more kind of a societal issue that as a society, if we believe that more marriage is better for us as a society and more kids, then I think we need to model that behavior and be honest about it with young people.
And this maybe is kind of an Ian Rowe type approach. That we have to be very clear. If our elite, for lack of a better term, kind of highly educated people, they’re the ones actually who are getting married and who are having kids, and yet the messaging you hear from them is not about marriage and not about having kids. It’s kind of like, “Oh, well you don’t need to get married. You don’t need to have kids.” I’m not sure why that is true, but I think that we should make it totally appropriate to talk about families with young people and with our own kids and stress the importance of getting married and being in a stable relationship and having kids and staying married and how that’s good for kids and good for society. I think all of those messages are appropriate, and we shouldn’t shy away from them. But to your point, I do think it’s more of a family-based societal kind of issue as opposed to something that really has a government solution.
Ben Wilterdink: Yeah. I think in some ways that just kind of highlights the challenge. I mean I know, Clay, you did some research with Harris Poll about a year ago that kind of tried to dig into why people aren’t having kids. And the one response that got, I think it was a plurality or it was a majority, the 50-
Clay Routledge: Yeah, majority. Yeah.
Ben Wilterdink: That 54% said that they didn’t want to have kids because they didn’t want to lose their independence. which I get. I mean, you do lose your independence in a lot of interesting and important ways, but it just seems like the message is, “It’s all cost,” Monetary cost. Loss of earnings. There’s an opportunity cost. There’s a cost of independence. I guess this is something that, I don’t know that if you were to just tell someone, “Actually, there’s benefits here too, and they’re hard to measure, but it really makes your life a lot more full and a lot better. And I think that this is something that you probably should do or at least consider, very seriously consider doing,” I’m a little skeptical that just saying that is going to do a lot in terms of persuading.
I really like your approach about modeling. I think that’s probably the best thing that we can do if this is the goal that we’re pursuing. This kind of ties back to the anxiety thing. If you have a more rational approach to this stuff and then you couple that with a more risk aversion, maybe the tide will just turn, maybe this is something that is kind of going to work itself out. I know sometimes that’s not always the most attractive way to frame it, but I do think that there is something to be said for… there’s some other voices coming out now and kind of challenging the way that we’re thinking about this. So I think in some ways we’re starting to see a little bit of a cultural turn here with some recent books that have been coming out, challenging that. But I think modeling is probably going to have to be the most important thing that we can do.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah. And I’ve wondered too if it’ll work itself out, you wonder if you hit a tipping point and then it does start to change culture a little bit, and you kind of move it back in the other direction. But to your point about modeling, I think too, I think a lot of this does need to happen within the family. As parents, how do we talk to our kids about their future and what that future looks like? And I think probably too many parents don’t really talk about how, “Oh, well, you need to get married, and you should get married before you have kids.” I think there’s probably more of that messaging that can happen even within the family.
And also, I’ll just say to your point about data, I think there’s data to suggest people are also expressing feelings of loneliness, not having meaning in their lives. There’s certainly increases in mental health issues. I think there is a connection between that and having family support, having kids, having all that’s involved in that. And that connection hasn’t really been made in the literature as much, and then certainly the messaging that comes out of the research. But I do think that likely has a role as well in just these feelings that people have had in deteriorating mental health over time. Because if you don’t have that familial support, it just makes life harde,r and it makes the ability to deal with life’s challenges even harder. And I think that connection could be probably made stronger.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, I think that’s totally right. I mean, going back to the Harris Poll that Ben mentioned, one of the things that when I wrote an op-ed about those data, what the majority of Americans who didn’t choose… So basically, what we did is we surveyed all adult Americans and a random sample, or representative sample I should say. And then we had a sub-sample of those who don’t have kids, who haven’t had kids, and we asked them why basically. And the most common answer was “personal independence.” Well, something around the theme of personal independence. It wasn’t these other fears. It wasn’t that they couldn’t afford it. It was like, for lack of a better way of saying it, they didn’t want to be parents. So that’s a preference thing. That’s not something, I mean, that public policy, I don’t think, is going to change.
We’ve seen some examples of governments in Asia, like Japan, I think trying pro-natal, basically trying to give people money to have kids and promote understanding, but it hasn’t been particularly successful. So that did seem to be more of a cultural thing. While at the same time, as you know, we’re seeing these other trends of growing anxiety, meaninglessness, loneliness, that are clearly associated with family.
Like I said, in my own work, and it’s not just my work, Pew Research Center has done global research on meaning, that’s where people get their meaning in life is from their family, more than anything else. So you see this disconnect between what actually leads to a fulfilling, meaningful life and what people maybe think they should do with their lives. So I guess that’s not really a good question except to turn it into a question.
Ben Wilterdink: Do you agree?
Clay Routledge: Yeah, yeah. And I guess, do you agree? And also, if we’re thinking about solutions, one thing I was thinking about when we were prepping for this, and I wasn’t really sure what the best way to frame it was. I’m not saying you’re making this argument, but I mean, you look at your work, it’s like, people’s perceptions of the affordability of families might be influencing their decisions, right? So if you think it’s unaffordable to have a family, then that might make you less likely to have a family. But another way of thinking about it is the reverse causal chain, which is maybe people who just have a family, that changes their economic views. Ben and I were talking about this earlier. There’s so many things in life that you’re sort of afraid to do because you don’t know. You just have a perception, and you’re like, “Oh.” I remember when my wife tried to talk me into doing yoga for years, I was terrified. I was like, “I’m not doing yoga.” I did yoga, and I was like, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.”
So I wonder to what extent, going back to the anxiety thing, to what extent some of this is just like you just got to go out and live. You just got to jump in, take a leap of faith, and then you’ll actually change your mind and be like, “Oh, actually you can make this work.” And that actually might make you economically more affluent, right? Because at least for me, I had kids when I was in grad school, which a lot of people would say is not the greatest time to have kids, but it motivated me to finish my PhD really quickly because I was like, I’ve got responsibilities here. That’s a long way of saying I’m just curious if connecting these social trends of loneliness, anxiety, and meaning to this rational thinking-through process, to what extent do you think it would be helpful as a culture just to push people just to go for it, to have a little more faith and take a leap of faith and have a little more confidence and boldness, and just go out in the world and start doing stuff?
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, no, I completely agree with you. And I think it gets to the point about, what was the term you used? The capstone versus the cornerstone?
Clay Routledge: Yeah, cornerstone. Yeah.
Angela Rachidi: Right. I think we don’t need to send a message that you have to have everything in place, and you have your lifestyle fully financed, and you have savings. Sometimes you do just have to jump in and try to make it work. I mean, that’s certainly my parents’ generation, that’s certainly what they did, and for better or for worse. But yeah, I think this applies to so many things beyond just having families, but just this idea of living life. And sometimes that does require taking a risk and making yourself a little bit uncomfortable for a while. But that’s all part of having life experiences. And I do wish there was more messaging around that. I think there’s too many messages about just things you shouldn’t do because it might be hard, or you need to avoid this or avoid that. So I think we’ve gone a little bit overboard in that kind of messaging. So I would like to see some of the other messaging come in of “experience life, take a risk, be smart about it, but certainly that’s how you’re going to have the most fulfilling life.”
Clay Routledge: Yeah, it’s almost like an extreme form of our helicopter parenting. Extend that out a little, that safetyism out a little bit. And obviously be like, “Well, don’t have kids,” or “Don’t do this.” You know what I mean? You see maybe a parallel trend with when people talk about dynamism, economic dynamism, people are not as entrepreneurial perhaps, because it’s risky to start a business. Well, in a way, starting a family is an entrepreneurial activity. It’s an active creation.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah.
Clay Routledge: So those might be, even though they’re different life choices, they might implicate similar underlying psychological risk averse processes.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, yeah. Actually, I’ve often thought about that issue of helicopter parenting and how that is playing out. Because if you think of when that became a thing, those kids that were helicopter parented are the ones who are 20 and 30 now. So I do wonder if that kind of plays a role. Again, how do you measure that? I don’t know. But I do think that the way people were parented likely just changes their risk taking, how they view things, their level of comfort with taking risks. So it’s kind of maybe my generation or even a little older, my kids are younger, but what that generation thought was good parenting maybe in the long run is not so much.
Clay Routledge: Right. Which could help explain the point you made about the elite or maybe more affluent people might be the ones actually starting families. If having kids has come to be thought of as a luxury good, then you better make sure that you are really, really padded economically to do. That does seem to have socioeconomic implications that… I’m not saying anyone saying this consciously is like, “Oh, poor people shouldn’t have kids.” But that’s kind of the message, that if you read between the lines and a lot of the media around this, it’s just like… Well, yeah, obviously we’re seeing well-off people have families, so why do they not see that as good for everyone?
Angela Rachidi: Yeah.
Clay Routledge: And again, I don’t think they would articulate it in a mean way like that, but the underlying assumption is like, well, if you can’t afford it by our perception of what makes it affordable, then it’s too risky for anyone below a certain economic point to do this.
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, no, that’s a good point. But this is actually something I struggle with a little bit because, we didn’t talk about this, but one of the main drivers of the declining fertility rate in the US is a decline in teenage births. So the US has seen a huge decline in teenage pregnancies and births, which obviously is a very good thing.
Clay Routledge: That’s a good example of not taking a risk.
Angela Rachidi: Yes, yes. So we would encourage teenagers not to have babies for the most part.
Clay Routledge: Right.
Angela Rachidi: But to your point, I think that it has maybe, marriage in particular, which then leads to childbearing, has become kind of an elite, sort of luxury good. And you wouldn’t want to necessarily say, “Oh yeah, poor people, you shouldn’t have kids.” I think the issue though is, the message around marriage has to be there, because for low-income people, they’re going to be much better off if they get married and then have kids. Even if they’re still low income when they get married and start having kids, it just gives them a much better opportunity over the long run to be economically secure versus what we know correlates greatly with poverty is having children outside of marriage. So I think that that marriage piece is really key, as well as focusing on let’s keep fertility low among especially teenagers and unmarried parents, and really focus on trying to get people to recognize the importance of marriage and childbearing.
Clay Routledge: Yeah, no, that’s a good point. You definitely need a balance between. You don’t want people to be too adventurous.
Ben Wilterdink: Right. Yeah, yeah. I sometimes joke that there’s that decline in teen pregnancy, which is really great, but there’s also a decline in dating. There’s a decline in younger people just-
Clay Routledge: Working. Teenage jobs, right?
Angela Rachidi: Yep.
Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, teenage jobs is another one, and that kind of stuff. It just makes me think somebody in the moral majority in the ’80s wished that teen pregnancy would decline on a monkey paw. And then now we’re kind of reeling back from that. But I think, what I’m getting from this is, this is actually something Russ Roberts, now president of Shalem College, he wrote a book called “Wild Problems,” and he actually made some of the similar points that we hit on today about not trying to be so rational and calculate everything, and try to view life less as a series of calculations and more as a journey that you can experience.
I think that’s some of what we’ve settled on here. But I do want to just close this out now and just ask Angela and maybe you too, Clay, if you were going to talk to someone that you knew who was maybe in their early 20s and kind of thinking through some of this stuff, what advice would you give them? What would you tell them?
Angela Rachidi: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And it’s funny because I think the 30-year-old version of me would tell a 20-year-old something very different than now the 45-year-old version of me would tell them.
Ben Wilterdink: That is good to know. Okay. Interesting.
Angela Rachidi: And it really stems from the fact that when I was 30, I didn’t have kids yet, and now I have kids, and I have a family. And I do think your perception just completely changes. The 30-year-old version of me was very focused on my career, getting my education, making sure that I personally, individually was economically sound. So I got that message, that, “Hey, you need to have everything in place before you can even think about getting married and having kids.”
But the 30-year-old version of me would probably have told a 20-year-old the same thing. But I think now that I’ve had kids and I’ve experienced all of it, I would tell that 20-year-old to not be risk averse, to kind of jump in, that life is more than just about pursuing career and economic goals. And that family, now that I’ve experienced it, in my view, takes priority over all of those other things.
And trying to balance certainly is important. But really, when you think about what a fulfilling life over the long term is, it’s not so much about that job that you got, it’s more about the people you surround yourself with, the family that you have and who you spend your time with. So I would encourage that 20-year-old to focus as much energy on finding that person to spend their life with and focusing on having kids as they do on their career and education.
Clay Routledge: That’s great advice. Yeah. Actually, my experience is different than yours and increasingly unique in that my wife and I got married when we were 21 and had kids at 22, so right after college. So when I started graduate school, I went to graduate school with a two-year-old and a three-month-old. And it was obviously very, very difficult. But one thing I noticed, which I touched on a little bit already, is how motivating that was. So I don’t think necessarily, what I did, doesn’t mean that would work for everyone or is even a good idea for anyone. But I did notice for me, having a family was a very focusing experience, and I didn’t screw around a lot in my 20s. You know what I mean? I didn’t have a lot of time to just do whatever I wanted. It was like, I had laser-like focus on goals.
Again, I’m not trying to say that what I did was better or worse, but I think that message is kind of lost. People always talk about what kids, Ben brought this up, what kids are going to cost you in terms of money, in terms of free time. But you see less of a focus on what kids are going to open up, what opportunities they’re going to open up for you in terms of motivation, purpose, meaning, but also social.
As you know, when your kids go to school, if they’re in sports or play musical instruments or anything, you meet other parents, you get in. So it opens up a world beyond your individual family unit as well. And I just think that there’s something really important about that, that we don’t talk about these other rewards. Some of them aren’t economically tangible, but some are. I think that we could definitely test, if it’s not already been tested, whether or not having kids increases people’s income. That’s got to be known, right? Is that the one where it does for men but not for women or-
Angela Rachidi: Yeah. No, I actually think it does for both.
Clay Routledge: For both?
Angela Rachidi: It’s hard to tease out causation versus correlation, but yeah, it does, it leads to higher income over time.
Clay Routledge: But yeah, that’s all to say I agree with you. I would advise young people to, some of the most rewarding and also unexpected, adventurous, mysterious, interesting experiences that you have are often brought about by having another human being that’s your responsibility, and it shifts your attention towards that and opens up new doors for connection and for meaning, I think, that you just wouldn’t have otherwise.
Ben Wilterdink: All right. Well, I think that’s a great place to end it. Angela, thank you so much for joining us today. Really, really appreciate it.
Angela Rachidi: Well, thanks for having me.
Angela Rachidi, PhD, is a senior fellow and the Rowe Scholar in opportunity and mobility studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she studies poverty and the effects of federal safety-net programs on low-income people in America. She is an expert in support programs for low-income families, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She also studies the effects of the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit on low-income American families, particularly on their work and income. Her research focuses on the relationship between employment and poverty, specifically the effectiveness of government programs and policies on increasing employment and family well-being.