American women are having fewer children than at any other time on record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in August. Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, the fertility rate in the United States has decreased by more than 10 percent to a new low of 59.8 per 1,000 women, or about 1.8 children per woman. Yet according to a 2013 Gallup poll, what Americans consider to be the ideal number of children has remained stable at around 2.6 since the 1970s.
A new poll from The Economist shows Americans are not alone in undershooting their ideal family size. In 11 of the 19 countries polled—at various levels of development—parents wanted more children than they expected to have. Financial pressures were the most common explanation given for the mismatch. The survey also found that those who had more children than their ideal seldom cited lack of access to birth control as the reason for overshooting—and most were just as happy or even happier with their “extra” kids.
Regrettably, family planning in the context of foreign aid has long been synonymous with contraception. It operates under the assumption that mothers in poor countries must limit their family size in order to reap the rewards of the globalized economy. Yet the experience in the United States, as well as demographic and economic “success stories” like China and Mexico, suggests that market demands may be setting those limits more than the desires of couples. This is exactly backward. Helping families prosper means helping them feel secure in their ability to have, not just avoid, children.