Paul Cameron
U.S. kids used to earn. Are there fewer kids because they now cost?
By Paul Cameron
April 14, 2023

Kids used to be "money in the bank." In 1900, most U.S. children worked, often earning a third of families’ income (their wages automatically belonged to the parents) and eventually also providing parents’ old age security. Customs about being fertile were strongly reinforced by economic realities. By 2023, only a tenth of 16-year-olds had a job (usually keeping their earnings which were no long automatically the parents’) and Social Security had eliminated at least part of kids’ benefit by giving the childless the same old-age income as parents. Childhood is now a time of schooling and ever-growing (and expensive) free time paid for by parents. Pro-fertility customs, built up over millennia, now clash with the economic reality that kids cost, rather than benefit, parents. Today’s youth must wrestle with the facts that:

  • the birth-control pill makes child-free sex easy (and abortion is available as a back-up);

  • divorce is bad for kids (and the adults pay in coin and grief as well);

  • economics supports freedom from children (you can have and do more without them);

  • and if you don’t have kids, marriage (which has a lot to do with benefiting kids), is optional.

U.S. births are declining. Further, the age of maternal first birth—which often marks the end of adolescent attitudes because the baby’s selfishness trumps that of the parents—has gone from about 22 years old to 27 years old. Psychologically, to the degree that becoming a parent transforms the adolescent into a good citizen (i.e., concerned about their children’s and society’s well-being as well as themselves), young adults are staying in "adolescence" longer.

You don’t have to be a parent to abandon self-centered adolescence and become concerned about the future of society, but parenthood has been the usual way to transition. The danger of skipping or delaying parenthood is not just too few kids to maintain society, but the elongation of adolescence with all its risky behaviors and self-centeredness. Society can suffer from too much adolescent/self-centered thinking and behavior. Indeed, holding a job helps make a person a better citizen, likewise getting married, becoming deeply religious, etc., can accomplish it as well, but parenthood does it most predictably.

Two major polls—The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio—came out in March of 2023. Do adolescent mentality and the increasing cost of kids account for some of their findings?

The Wall Street Journal poll, written up as being about American values, was touted as having a lot to say about where we might be headed. But it first asked 10 questions about the U.S. economy. Every poll has a context and asking 10 questions about economics tends to bias the stance from which you approach the rest of the questionnaire. 80% of the 1,019 adult respondents said the "state of our economy" was poor (1% said it was “excellent,” 19% “good,” 54% “poor,” and 26% “not so good”). That is, the poll was introduced with a question that was a "downer" for 80% of respondents. More questions about the economy followed, including "Do you feel confident or not confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us?" 78% chose "not confident.” Not a neutral set up for asking about "values."

Besides introducing itself with fairly concerning questions about the economy, the WSJ poll also had a response rate of 4.3% (that is, 95.7% of the intended interviews didn’t happen). All in all, the findings "look right" demographically—thus 12% of respondents were Black, 84% were parents, 62% had a job, and 32% were Evangelical—close to national parameters.

But the WSJ, like all media, wants attention, and this poll was written up to stoke fear and concern. Much has been made of the fact that when compared to other poll findings, respondents were considerably less apt to say patriotism, religion, tolerance, and having children were "very important" (but notice that respondents ticked "somewhat important" rather than "not that important" in Table 1). Perhaps the 2023 respondents were less "extreme" than those in the past. Thus, in 1998, 70% said patriotism, 62% said religion, and in 2019 80% said tolerance was "very important." The highest rated "very important" in Table 1 is "hard work" at 67%. Thus, the relative importance of all but "money" stayed similar (and the economic questions leading the poll may have made money seem more important to respondents).

As FRI found in our smaller polls over the past three years, Christians are migrating ever more to the Republican and the irreligious to the Democrat side of politics. In the WSJ poll, twice as many Republicans said religion was "very important" to them and 75% of Republicans v 15% of Democrats ticked society had gone "too far" in accepting trans. Similarly, 6% of Democrats v 55% of Republicans said the same about accepting gays. These differences are consistent with traditionalists, Christians, and the irreligious self-sorting by political party.

23% of adults under age 30 v 32% of those over 64 said that having children was "very important." But, as you can see from Table 1, another 36% of adults said having kids was "somewhat important." Now that having kids is more like a "gift to society" than an economic boost to the parents, household finances increasingly weigh against having children.

The old generation ticked having kids a bit higher (and produced 2.0 kids/woman instead of younger adults’ 1.6 kids/woman), but the difference is modest. The economic tilt to the first part of the WSJ poll might have given a boost to the “money” response.

In this poll, school vouchers were a tossup: “Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose states giving parents tax-funded vouchers they can use to help pay for tuition for their children to attend private or religious schools of their choice instead of public schools? 34% were in favor and 37% opposed. Clearly, given our current birthrate at close to 1.6/woman (rather than 2.1/ or better), something must be done to make having children – especially in marriage – far more attractive.

The NPR poll conducted from March 20 to 23 among 1,327 U.S. adults reported some findings that show how important parenthood is toward abandoning adolescent thinking. It is a liberal-leaning poll with liberal-leaning questions, but two questions are especially important in illustrating the power of "children present:"

“Several state legislatures have proposed bills affecting the transgender community. Do you support or oppose a bill that criminalizes providing gender transition-related medical care for minors?” And

“Do you support or oppose laws that would restrict drag shows or performances in your state?”

"Transition-related care" is ambiguous, but the current issue is whether, on their own say-so, or in accord with parental say-so, kids can have their bodies mutilated either hormonally or surgically to "sorta" approximate that of the opposite sex. Notice (Table 2) that the responses of those without kids present in the same house are the mirror image of those without kids-under-roof. It appears that having kids "right there" is considerably more powerful than just being parents in general because in all probability most respondents without kids-under-roof were still parents.

Drag shows appear to fall under the "government shouldn’t mess with adult entertainment" shield. Even those with kids in their households were split on censoring them, even though the question didn’t really address the hot-button issue of whether the underage can attend. Notice that political affiliation on both questions was stronger than the presence or absence of kids in the household. That is, Republicans were more supportive of, and Democrats more opposed to, criminalization and restrictions than those with or without children in the household.

These are polls, with only the responses of the willing recorded. Unlike the birthrate, these are what people say, rather than what people do. Even so, what people say combined with the birthrate—which in the long run means a great deal—suggests the U.S. is on notice to devote significant resources toward encouraging marriage with children or face a slow demographic decline.

© Paul Cameron


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

Paul Cameron

Dr. Paul Cameron was the first scientist to document the harmful health effects of second-hand tobacco smoke. He has published extensively on LGBT issues in refereed scientific journals. In 1978 he predicted that equal treatment of homosexuality and heterosexuality would strongly favor growing homosexuality and shrinking heterosexuality. His prediction is coming true.


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