Birth Rate Gap Between Low-income and High-income Families Essay Example

Have you ever heard a story about low-income parents struggling to put food on the table for their four kids? Or maybe you have noticed that many high-income parents have only one child and focus all of their attention on their career or their material goods? Or have you read an article describing a low-income mom who could not afford childcare and was forced to quit her job in order to look after all of her children because of her inability to pay for childcare? These stories and many more like them prompted me to question why low-income families are having more children than high-income families. Low-income families should not be out-reproducing high-income families; finding causes behind the income-based birth rate gap and ways to fix them can help prevent the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer. The question pertaining to the birth rate gap in the United States is especially relevant to me because my family seems to be different than the statistical trends. I fortunately come from a family within the high-income bounds. However, I am not an only child; I am one of seven children in my family. I plan to find out why the income-based birth rate gap exists, why my family is different than what the trends say, and what needs to be done to lessen the gap.

The Birth Rate Gap is Real

Currently low-income families are having many more children than high-income families. Families living with under $50,000 of income annually have at least 27.5% more children than families living with at least $200,000 annually (US Census Bureau). However, low-income families have not always out-reproduced high-income families. Before the demographic transition, higher status meant more children. The higher a man’s status was, the more sexual partners or wives he had, which ultimately led to an increase in family size. Also, in the olden days the mortality rate was much higher than it is now which caused families to have many children. Moreover, before the demographic transition, the wealthier a family was, the more resources they had, which meant they could have many children to fill up their big house and they were never worried about spending too much because back then their wealth ran deep. The poor before the demographic transition did not have the space, resources, or help that is necessary to support a large family. Countries that are now developed experienced a switch from a positive to a negative correlation between economic status and birth rates. In France, a study conducted by Bardet shows the positive to negative relational shift between birth rate and wealth. In 1670 the lower class in France had an average of five children, while the upper class had an average of seven children. In 1803 the lower class had an average of six children per family, and the upper class only had an average of four children per family (Skirbekk 146). The entire lower class increased their family size by one child, whereas the upper class decreased their family size by three children. Nowadays, as people get richer, they have smaller families. Other animal species behave differently; when their circumstances improve, they react by increasing their reproductive rate, not curtailing it (“More or Less”). I believe animals are behaving more intelligently than humans. Deciding to have more offspring when in a time of good fortune seems logical, whereas choosing to have many children when struggling to get by does not make sense to me. In this paper, I plan to investigate why high-income families are having fewer children than low-income families, why it is important to discuss this topic, and some possible solutions for decreasing the income-based birth rate gap.

The negative relationship between economic status and human birth rate still exists today and can be seen in Figure 1 and Figure 2 on the next page. Figure 1 depicts the relationship between birth rate and household income in the United States. As household income increases, birth rate decreases steadily. Families earning less than $10,000 per year have a 49.96 percent more children compared to families earning over $200,000 per year. Figure 2 shows the relationship between birth rate and gross domestic product per capita across a magnitude of countries. Countries with less than $1,000 gross domestic product per capita have an average of five children, whereas countries with more than $50,000 gross domestic product per capita have an average of 1.25 children. The birth rate gap within only the United States is the main focus of this paper, but the graph in Figure 2 illustrates the fact that as people or countries get richer, their birth rates decrease significantly.

Of course, not every family in the United States follows the statistics listed above. There are definitely outliers, and my family is one of them. Yes, I would say my house is quite large, but there are also nine people living in it. Most of my neighbors and friends at my high school with the exact same size houses as mine only have three or four people living inside of it. They do not have big families like mine. Instead, the majority of them are actually only children or they have just one other sibling. Later on, I hope to understand why people with so many resources and space available decide to have such a small number of children.

Figure 1

“Birth Rate by Family Income in the U.S. 2015 | Statistic.” Statista, May 2017, www.statista.com/statistics/241530/birth-rate-by-family-income-in-the-u/.

Figure 2

Vandenbroucke, Guillaume. “The Link between Fertility and Income.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 12 Dec. 2016, www.stlouisfed.org/on-the-economy/2016/december/link-fertility-income.

Explanations for the Birth Rate Gap

Many factors explain why high-income parents are having less children than low-income parents. Education is one of the most significant causes of the birth rate gap; it may refer to the general education level of the parents, their ability to pay for their children’s education, or their education on the use of contraceptives. Most wealthy people are considerably more educated than people living in poverty because of how unfair our society is to low-income people. 77 percent of people in the top quartile of household income graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, whereas only 9 percent of people in the bottom quartile receive the same degree (Sherman). When students start kindergarten, children from low-income families are already more than a year behind children of college educated families in both reading and math (Porter). The public education system does not help this problem; by ninth grade the achievement gap on average will have widened by at least three grade levels because of novice teachers and inadequate school districts in poor communities (Gray). Of course, the achievement gap is a major problem in America, however this paper’s focus is the income-based birth rate gap.

The more educated parents are, the more years they spend in school. Adults staying in school longer delays when they start having children. If a mother had her first child at age 35, after years of schooling and securing a professional job; she is not going to be able to have as many kids as another woman who had her first child at age 25 even if she wants to because women are only fertile for so long. Women with college degrees on average have children seven years later than women without any college experience (Porter). More education also causes women to have more professional jobs. 25 percent of all women with professional jobs are childless, whereas only 15 percent of total women in the United States are childless (“Fertility Gap Widens…”). Policies in the United States regarding working parents are not helping. Paid maternity leave laws and affordable childcare systems are nonexistent. The declining birth rate of professional women should be forcing the United States to make our policies friendlier to working parents. In European countries like Germany, their government immediately responded to the fact that its birth rate had slipped below 1.4 children per woman by making its paid maternity leave policy longer and more generous (Ingraham). Because of the disparity between high-income families and low-income families, the overall birth rate in America is actually at replacement level, which unfortunately causes there to be no push to put in national paid leave laws or a decent affordable childcare system. On the other side of the spectrum, low-income women who do not go to college or even complete high school have little career prospects and few goals in life besides becoming a mother (Bui, Miller). People with a higher socioeconomic status have easier access to doing things like going to college or grad school, traveling, and having a fulfilling career before having children. Lower-income women might not have access to these opportunities, so being a mother to many children may seem like the most accessible source of meaning for them (Bui, Miller). There are definitely benefits to having children at a younger age as well, which include the parents having a lot of energy to keep them entertained, and they will most likely be alive longer to see their grandchildren and maybe even their great grandchildren grow up.

The high prices of higher education can also affect how many children parents decide to have. Many affluent parents choose to have fewer children than low-income families because of the economic investment they are putting into each one of their children in order to ensure their success later in life (Aarssen 114). Also, high-income families do not want to lose their wealth, so the less children they have, the less money they need to spend. In economic terms, the demand for the quantity of children has decreased while the demand for the quality of children has increased following urbanization (Dribe et al. 4). The increase in demand for the quality of children has made education and other investments extremely expensive and important. The rising costs of children’s higher education and the higher payoffs for investing in them have reduced the birth rate significantly in high-income families (University of Missouri-Columbia).

The use of contraception is another factor in the birth rate gap between the wealthy and the poor. Contraceptive use positively correlates with high education and income (Skirbekk 149). Women below the poverty line are five times as likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than women who make more than 400 percent of the poverty line (Swanson). Low-income couples struggle to obtain contraception because they cannot always access programs like Medicaid, much less afford private health insurance. Moreover, many people living in poverty struggle to just get food on the table; how are they supposed to be concerned about going to the doctor for the pill or heading to the store to buy condoms? Since the effectiveness of many forms of contraception depends on proper usage, women who are less intelligent tend to use contraception inconsistently and incorrectly which causes unplanned pregnancies. Another issue with education and contraception in the United States has to do with the fact that numbers of unplanned pregnancies and births among women have climbed steadily in recent years. Low-income women are five times more likely than high-income women to have an unplanned pregnancy, and six more times likely to have an unplanned birth (Lerner). Moreover, between 2000 and 2008, only 40 percent of women who needed publicly funded family planning services received them. Political attacks on affordable family planning are driving the number of unintended pregnancies among poor women up which then pushes the birth rate gap between low-income and high-income families even further apart.

More factors that also contribute to differences in birth rate but are less significant than education include a family’s culture, religion, occupation, and basic societal norms. In some cultures, a woman’s role is to be a wife and mother whose only job is to stay at home and take care of the children. Women who marry young and start having children early usually cut their education short which causes them to start having more children earlier and ultimately a lower income throughout their life (Noakes). Also, there are many cultures that believe family is an immensely important ideal which causes parents to have larger families. In these cultures, the children are supposed to care for the parents in their old age, so having more children leads to more care for the parents later in life. On the other hand, some religions including Roman Catholicism and Protestantism do not believe in the use of contraceptives. However, it is very difficult to find an authentic relation between religion and wealth, so religion is not a viable explanation for the income-based birth rate gap. A family’s occupation can also affect birth rate. For example, independent farmers in the United States have between 20-30 percent more children than the high-income group because they need their many children to work for them on the family farm (Dribe et al. 12). The majority of independent farmers are also sadly a part of the low-income class, which adds to the fact that low-income families have more children. The expansion of labor outside the home, the higher proportions of people living and working in cities, and the declining use of children in household production have caused especially high-income families to have fewer children because they are not needed to help their parents with their work; most times they are actually a hindrance to parents who lack a paid maternity leave and paid vacation days. Basic societal norms also instigate the birth rate gap between low-income and high-income families. People are more likely than before to live in places surrounded by people like them, meaning rich people like to live next to other rich people and vice versa (Bui, Miller). People’s main goal is to fit into their surroundings, so they duplicate the lives of people around them. The local factors of job opportunities, housing prices, and societal norms can all influence their family planning differently depending on what community a family lives in (Bui, Miller). Pregnancy and family size may seem like a straightforward exercise of individual will or choice, but as you can see here, there are most definitely larger forces that play a role in a family’s birth rate (Lerner).

Both of my parents received a college education. My mom received her degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and my dad received his bachelor's degree from Boston University and his master’s degree from the University of Florida. The fact that they both received a college education, would usually point to them having a small number of children, but instead they had seven. I think my parents went against the statistical trends that I researched because of my dad’s culture. He is Filipino, and a main part of Filipino culture is the importance of family. I have been taught all my life that family always comes first above anything else. Also, another important piece of Filipino culture is the fact that having a son is very important to carry on the family name. I think my parents had so many children because they kept trying to have a son but instead, they had seven daughters. Also, my parents have a rule that all my sisters and I have to pay our own way through college because that is how they did it. They want to teach all of us the importance of money and a college education. I think that may be an important factor on why they kept having children because they knew they would not need to pay for our higher education.

Importance of Discussing the Birth Rate Gap

The birth rate gap may seem like an unimportant or almost bizarre issue, however, in the United States 41 percent of children under 18 years old are low-income children; 19 percent of low-income children are living in poverty (Koball, Jiang 1). Out of approximately 72.4 million children in the United States, 29.7 million of them are considered to be low-income. Children are severely overrepresented among the nation’s poor; they make up only 23 percent of the total population but represent 32 percent of all people in poverty (Koball, Jiang 1). Focusing our attention on the birth rate gap between the low-income class and high-income class can help fix this problem at the source. The statistics listed above are unacceptable. Children living in poverty experience unnecessary food insecurity which can cause lifelong effects including lower reading and math scores, more physical and mental health problems, and more emotional and behavioral problems (Chapman). Children born into low-income families are at a disadvantage from the beginning. Childhood poverty comes with horrific conditions of inadequate child care, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, and unsafe neighborhoods (“Facts About Child Poverty in the U.S.A”). Poor children experience chronic stress that causes many adverse effects on their memory, concentration, and ability to learn; they are at a greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems like impulsiveness, aggression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (“Facts About Child Poverty in the U.S.A”). Low-income students are also seven times more likely to drop out of school than their middle-income or high-income counterparts (Porter). All of these facts are appalling to read, but it is important to understand how serious the problem of childhood poverty is. The basic necessities for success in life that many children in poverty are not receiving is making it more and more difficult for low-income children to lift not only themselves, but also future generations out of the low-income class.

Since moving up the economic ladder into higher socioeconomic classes has gotten more challenging over the years, a family’s circumstances can have a very large effect on their children’s futures. The rich are likely to stay rich and the poor are likely to stay poor (Wesby). Since a college degree is almost essential to earning at least a middle-class wage, high income families with fewer children have the means to pay for the college preparatory tutoring, all the sports and art activities, and the college savings accounts. All of these benefits can put their children at the front of the pack, ahead of their lower-income counterparts who spend much of their life struggling just to catch up. Research has shown that where children start in life strongly influence where they end up (Bui, Miller). The growing disparity between low-income and high-income people may be attributed to many factors, but the environment that a child is raised in bears the most impact (Websy). An analysis of tracking about 800 students from the first grade through their late 20s done by Johns Hopkins University found that only four percent of children from low-income families receive a college education, compared to 45 percent of children from high-income families (Websy). The lives of children from rich and poor American families look more different than they have ever before. Well-off families tend to be controlled by calendars, juggling children’s enrollment in ballet, soccer, and other after-school or summer activities. Wealthy families are typically more able to spend money on future oriented things that can ensure their children’s wellbeing, whereas low-income families can only focus on immediate needs such as food and transportation (Websy). Also, more often than not, high-income parents are able to spend time reading to children and worrying about their anxiety levels and hectic schedules (Miller). According to a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, higher-income parents try to develop their children through close supervision and organized activities, teaching them how to navigate elite institutions which can cause children to expect their parents to solve all of their problems; however later in life the more affluent children end up in college with the skills to navigate bureaucracies and succeed in their profession (Miller). Lower-income children on the other hand tend to spend their time at home or with extended family because their parents have to work low paying jobs with no time off and odd hours. Low-income parents also have less time and fewer resources to invest in their children, which can leave them less prepared for school and the working world. Low-income parents give their children more independence and time for free play believing their children will naturally thrive which causes them to be more independent and happier, but they can struggle with school and finding a job with a decent salary(Miller). Children were not always raised so differently; the achievement gap between high and low-income families is 35 percent larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier (Miller). Contrasting upbringings between wealthy and poor children definitely set them on different paths from the beginning which ultimately deepens socioeconomic divisions. Children usually grow up learning the skills to succeed in their own socioeconomic stratum, but not necessarily others (Miller). Ultimately a vicious cycle is occurring: rich parents are most likely going to have a small amount of children who will also end up being rich parents who have few children, while poor parents unfortunately will most likely have many children who will also be poor parents later in life who have many children causing the gap between the upper class and lower class to continue to grow.

Because of the many aspects that have led to the birth rate gap between high income families and low-income families, I think the best way to lessen the gap would be to implement many different solutions, instead of just one big solution.

One way to encourage high-income parents to have more children, which would lessen the birth rate gap, would be to implement better policies that support working mothers. Many working mothers with professional jobs do not receive the workplace support needed to balance caring for their families and bringing their full selves to work. There are no laws saying women must receive a paid maternity leave. The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not mandate employers offer paid leave for mothers (Ingraham). I think a federal law should be implemented stating a mother can receive up to six months of paid maternity leave and then up to another six months of unpaid maternity leave if they so choose. Working mothers would then be able to fully recover from childbirth and be with their babies who need extra attention and care in the crucial months after birth. Also, research has shown that paid maternity leave is associated with better job performance, increased family incomes, and increased economic growth (Ingraham).

Another solution that would help lessen the birth rate gap between high-income families and low-income families would be to implement a sex education course into every public district and private school. All states are currently somehow involved in sex education for public schoolchildren. However, “only 20 states require that if provided, sex and/or HIV education must be medically, factually or technically accurate” (Blackman). The previous quote means that only 20 states accurately go in depth on everything related to sex education. The importance of understanding everything taught in a sex education course, especially how and when to use contraception correctly is necessary for all people. If every student, whether in a private school or public school, became more educated in how to use contraception the right way, then there would be less unwanted pregnancies and births meaning many low-income families will have less children which would ultimately lessen the birth rate gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Implementing a free healthcare system for everyone in the United States would also help decrease the income-based birth rate gap. Family planning services should definitely be available to everyone for a very low price. If nationwide healthcare was put into place, then everyone would be able to access the many forms of contraception for a cheaper price or even for free. Also, if an unwanted unplanned pregnancy did occur than anyone who needed help would have access to a safe and effective family planning services without paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Free nationwide healthcare would lead to low-income families being able to access all things necessary to prevent unwanted pregnancies and births which would result in low-income families having less children causing the income-based birth rate gap to decrease.

Concluding Thoughts

Maybe America really is in a crisis. Many of the solutions listed above will most likely not be implemented into our government for many years, which could cause the income-based gap to keep increasing ultimately separating the wealthy and poor even more than they are currently. I think the income-based birth rate gap needs to be discussed more. Most people do not even know these trends are occurring; knowledge is power. The more people that know about this birth rate gap, the more help that can be brought in to decrease it. There is an old Spanish poem in which a wounded soldier can only be saved when all people (from both sides of the war) come to his aid. Today, I think everyone rich or poor needs to come together and see not only what is going on the world around them but fix it for the better. There is absolutely no reason for The United States of America to be in a crisis.


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