From the Housing Market to the Maternity Ward
- From the Housing Market to the Maternity Ward
By JOHN LELAND
February 1, 2008
For the first time in 35 years, America's total fertility rate the
estimated number of children a woman will have in her lifetime
reached 2.1, the theoretical level required to maintain the country's
population, according to recent data from the National Center for
Demographers caution that it is too soon to say whether the increase
is a blip or a trend, or to determine its causes, which may include
changes in the economy, immigration and the availability of abortion.
"All this could turn around on a dime," said Stephanie J. Ventura,
chief of the reproductive statistics branch of the statistics center.
But at a time when no cocktail conversation is complete without a
discussion of real estate, the boomlet raises a question that has
long interested social scientists: What is the relationship between
fertility and real estate?
In the wide-open mortgage climate early this decade, creative loan
products allowed more people than ever to buy homes, often a
precursor to having children. In 2006, the babies arrived a
reminder, perhaps, that if you build it, they will toddle.
Is real estate destiny?
"It's something a bunch of us have been thinking about," said
A. Davis, an assistant professor of real estate and urban land
economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business.
"If you reduce down-payment constraints, more people can buy homes,
or buy bigger homes. Does that encourage them to have more kids? I
would say nobody knows."
Social scientists have long traced a connection between housing and
fertility. When homes are scarce or beyond the means of young
couples, as in the 1930s, couples delay marriage or have fewer
children. This tendency helps account for the relatively dismal birth
rates of many developed nations, said Robert Engelman, vice president
for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research
organization, and author of the forthcoming "More: Population,
Nature, and What Women Want."
"One reason there are so few children in Italy is that housing is so
hard to come by," Mr. Engelman said. "Houses are bigger in the U.S.
and generally more available. That may help explain why Americans
have more babies."
Several population specialists emphasized that housing is just one
influence on fertility, and difficult to tease out from other
factors, like income or optimism. "If you lower the cost of housing,
you're going to lower the cost of raising a child," said Seth
Sanders, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the
University of Maryland. "But if you look at how much it costs to
raise a child, only one-third of the cost is housing. So my guess is
that the impact is not very large."
But Matthew E. Kahn, an economist at the Institute of the Environment
at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggested another way
housing trends might be complicit in the baby boomlet of 2006. For
decades, Americans have built increasingly bigger houses, even as
family size declined. Bigger houses mean incentives to stay home and
fructify, Mr. Kahn said.
"Those ARM-financed McMansions are in the middle of nowhere, where
land is cheap," he said, using the acronym for adjustable-rate
mortgage. "That increases the time it takes to get to work, meaning
it raises the cost for women to go to work. That should increase
The 4,265,996 babies born in 2006, the most since 1961, reflect
increases in birth rates for women in all parts of the country and
nearly every demographic group studied including teenagers, whose
rate had dropped every year since 1991. The only decline was among
girls under 15.
But that does not mean the new arrivals look like their parents'
generation. For starters, they are much more likely to be Hispanic,
to live in a red state and to be part of an evangelical Christian
Hispanic women in 2006 gave birth at a rate corresponding to lifetime
averages of 2.96 children per woman, compared with 2.11 for
non-Hispanic black women and 1.86 for non-Hispanic whites. The
fertility rates for Hispanic immigrants were higher than those in
many of their countries of origin, including Mexico, where the rate
is 2.4, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
General birth rates were highest in Republican strongholds like Utah
(94.1 births per 1,000 women), Arizona (81.6), Idaho (80.9) and Texas
(78.8). They were lowest in states won by John Kerry in 2004,
including Vermont (52.2), New Hampshire (53.4), Maine (54.5), Rhode
Island (54.6) and Massachusetts (57). The rate in New York was 61.1,
well below the national average of 68.5. The rate in New Jersey was
64.4; in Connecticut, 58.8.
The report does not include information on religion or socioeconomic
status, but researchers have long linked religious observance and
affiliation with higher rates of fertility, even attributing the
growth of evangelical churches and decline of mainline Protestant
churches to differences in fertility rates.
In a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of
evangelicals said they had children, compared with 73 percent of
nonevangelical Protestants and 62 percent of those who described
themselves as secular. For Catholics and Protestants, the more often
they attended services, the more likely they were to have children.
Ms. Ventura of the health statistics center said it was unusual that
2006 birth rates rose for both teenagers and older women. In the
past, a strong economy "contributed to a decline in the teenage birth
rate, because they saw they could get good jobs, so they put off
childbirth," she said. "For older people, a good economy makes them
say, `We can afford to have another child.' "
With their low birth rates, Europe, Japan, China and parts of the
Middle East face the burden of shrinking productive work forces and
aging populations (a vicious cycle: gloomy economic prospects lead to
low birth rates, which lead to gloomy economic prospects). For the
United States, then, the boomlet is a healthy sign, said Michael
Rendall, director of the Population Research Center at the RAND
Corporation, a research group. "It's not a huge amount, but it's a
sign in a positive direction. Timing is very important."
Mr. Rendall considered the cohort born in 1960, at the height of the
baby boom. In 2040, when that group turns 80, the people born in 2006
will be in their prime earning years, he said. "The baby boom peak
will be benefiting from 34-year-olds born in 2006. They'll be in the
labor force just in time."
The recent downturn in the economy and the housing market bodes
poorly for a continued boomlet. Last year, the National Association
of Home Builders reported that houses had stopped growing.
Foreclosures discourage people from having children. "What could be
happening now is that people will have wealth shock, and reduce need
for everything, including children," said Mr. Sanders of the Maryland
Population Research Center.
Which would drive down house prices, making homes more affordable.
Which could start the cycle again.
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Others May Simply Live