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Child's Play with Numbers

11:45 AM, Aug 3, 2011 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The New York Post had a long story on fertility rates yesterday, centered on the idea that lots of college educated women—and particularly Manhattan women—no longer want to have kids.

In the course of the story, the Post reporter leans on some popular research and quotes a bunch of women who’ve written cutesy books about ambivalence toward motherhood. The money quote comes from Melanie Notkin:

“I call it mom-opia,” says Melanie Notkin, author of the book “Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers and All Women Who Love Kids.” Notkin’s book touts many facts and figures related to the surge of childless American women — such as the 2008 US Census report statistic that 45.7 percent of women under the age of 44 do not have children. She believes this vast, almost-half population of women is still largely invisible.

“I think people often invert the ‘w’ in women to ‘m’ for mother,” she says. “There’s this assumption that all women are mothers. Everybody seems so shocked by the statistics. I have been questioned so often, I have to actually show people the census data!”

Who could argue with Census data? It’s data! From the Census!

Sigh. Notkin is sort of right: According to the latest numbers, 47.1 percent of women under 44 are childless. But that number doesn’t really tell you all that much, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what Notkin is trying to imply. She seems to be suggesting that, despite what your lying eyes tell you from anecdotal evidence, nearly half of all women don’t have kids. (In fairness to her, maybe she wasn’t implying this and the reporter didn’t put her quotation in proper context.)

The problem with that number is it means 47.1 percent of all women between the ages of 15 and 44 are childless. This universe includes tons of teenagers and women in their early 20s who just haven’t gotten around to having kids yet. As a predictor of eventual childless-ness, this number is meaningless.

What Notkin really wants is the period childless number—that is, the percentage of women who would be childless at the end of their reproductive years if all of the current fertility averages held. Or better yet, she’d like the percent of the childless cohort, which would be something like this: “among women born between 1964 and 1969, X percent were childless after the age of 44.”

When you pull those numbers out, you get a very different picture. Among women currently aged 40 to 44, only 18.8 percent are childless. As a percentage, that’s about the same as the number of women that age who have three children (19.1 percent).

Break the numbers down further and you see that, among women ever married, only 12.9 percent remained childless among those 40 to 44 years old.

None of this is meant to suggest that childlessness has not increased in prevalence over the last 40 years—it has. But it is nowhere near as common as Melanie Notkin and the Post would have you believe.

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