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From the Housing Market to the Maternity Ward

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  • Augie
    From the Housing Market to the Maternity Ward By JOHN LELAND February 1, 2008
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 8, 2008
      From the Housing Market to the Maternity Ward
      February 1, 2008


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      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
      Health Statistics.

      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.

      Live Simply So That
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