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The future of the family shouldn’t be shaped by economic pessimism

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Birthrates across the Western world are in free-fall, with more and more adults opting for fewer and fewer kids (if any at all), and making such decisions later and later in life. In 2017, fertility rates in America hit a record low for the second year in a row.

The reasons for the decline are numerous, ranging from expansions in opportunity to increases in gender equality to basic shifts in personal priorities. According to a recent survey conducted by the Morning Consult for The New York Times, “financial insecurity” also tops the list. “About a quarter of the respondents who had children or planned to said they had fewer or expected to have fewer than they wanted,” the study concludes. “The largest shares said they delayed or stopped having children because of concerns about having enough time or money.”

It’s shouldn’t be that surprising, given that the supposed cost of raising a child in modern America continues to climb, averaging $233,610 per child according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which factors in costs for housing, food, clothing, healthcare, education, toys, and more).

Combined with fears about personal finances and our economic future, the American family is increasingly being shaped by an sweeping economic pessimism:

Among people who did not plan to have children, 23 percent said it was because they were worried about the economy. A third said they couldn’t afford child care, 24 percent said they couldn’t afford a house and 13 percent cited student debt.

Financial concerns also led people to have fewer children than what they considered to be ideal: 64 percent said it was because child care was too expensive, 43 percent said they waited too long because of financial instability and about 40 percent said it was because of a lack of paid family leave.  Women face another economic obstacle: Their careers can stall when they become mothers.

The irony is striking. Amid the recent explosion of freedom, personal choice, leisure, gender equality, and economic opportunity — the reality of which is affirmed by the same survey! — the rising generations have somehow convinced themselves that life is also harder than ever and financial insecurity abounds.

For those of us who shudder at the prospect of a world with fewer children, one wonders how we might illuminate that irony, offering a compelling economic case for having children in the modern age. But while it’s tempting to get overly granular, deconstructing our inflated consumeristic expectations or offering innovative “life hacks” on the path to fiscal parenthood, we’d do well to recognize the basic limits of those surface-level discussions. Alas, the problem at the center of the West’s looming demographic crisis is that question itself — “Do I have enough economic stability to start a family?” — complete with its narrow disposition toward cost and convenience as the primary inputs for guiding human destiny.

For Christians in particular, the choice to have children is one that ought to be driven by something deeper, wider, and higher than our economic prospects or personal career priorities, whether based on hedonistic “life goals” or more practical budgetary concerns. Financial wisdom and frugality are important, but God didn’t tell Hannah, Manoah, or Mary to plug their ears, shut up their hearts, and budget their way to babies.

At what point do we waive our “right to choose,” and let God choose for us? At what point do we recognize that the sacrifices of parenthood are inevitably heavy, no matter the economic conditions, and that such heaviness brings its own value and liberation to everything else? This is where we ought to begin, allowing our financial prudence to be channeled and interpreted accordingly.

To do so, however, we will need to accept a tension that’s a bit more complicated than “Master’s degree vs. children” or “dream job vs. family” or “self-actualization vacation vs. babymoon.” More and more, we view these as either-or decisions: pursue the dream and then pursue the family (marriage is a “capstone event”); or, pursue the family and (sigh) put the dream on hold.

Instead, we should accept the available integration in all its mystery and beauty, recognizing the abundance that children bring to the economic order, regardless of our line-item budgets and plans for the future. Doing so will require that we transcend the same earthbound temptations we struggle with when it comes to other areas (e.g. prosperity, comfort, security, happiness), connecting each to higher definitions not swayed by the circumstances and cynicisms of the day.

Financial considerations are important, and they ought to remain an active part of our discernment and decision-making process. Likewise, God does not call everyone to have children, nor does he require us to have them as soon or as young as possible. But when asked why they’re not having children, millennials rarely point to transcendent or others-oriented obligations, pointing instead to illusions of comfort and convenience or inflated notions of economic impossibility.

America is not yet in a stage of demographic collapse, but we face increasing confusion on the importance of child-rearing to the flourishing of society and the economic abundance it implies for all else. We’d do well to locate the proper source of our “meaning making,” and cultivate our families accordingly.

Painting: Ferdinand de Braekeleer

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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