The Magazine

America’s One-Child Policy

What China imposed on its population, we’re adopting voluntarily.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Baby Boom was notable not just for its magnitude but for its longevity—it lasted an entire generation, creating a population bulge that still bloats our demographic profile. Yet despite its impact, the Baby Boom was temporary. In the cultural moment that followed during the 1960s and 1970s, the fertility rate in America—and indeed around the world—went bust. In Canada, the United States, Japan, and Western Europe, in every single Western industrialized nation, the fertility rate plummeted.

From a combined TFR of 3.7 in 1960, U.S. fertility halved to 1.8 in 1980. It has rebounded slightly during the last few decades, but that upward movement has more to do with Hispanic immigration than with increased native fertility. In 2006, the fertility rate of non-Hispanic whites was 1.77; the fertility rate of blacks was 2.0. Of America’s major demographic groups, only Hispanics are above replacement, with a TFR of 2.3. Yet even the Hispanic population has seen its fertility rate fall some 8 percent in the last decade. Indeed, the problem with immigration as it relates to fertility isn’t the old complaint that the newcomers are out-breeding the natives. Rather, the problem is that the newcomers start behaving like natives too soon, with their TFR regressing quickly to the mean. If we are to maintain even our modest 2.06, we need an ever-greater supply of immigrants. 

Today there are 26.6 million legal immigrants living in America and roughly 11.3 million illegals. We need these workers to prop up the entitlement programs we’re no longer having enough babies to fund. In order to keep Social Security and Medicare running, we need a stable ratio of workers to retirees. If we were to keep the ratio at the present level of three workers for every retiree—already lower than it has ever been—America would need to add 44.9 million new immigrants between 2025 and 2035. If we wanted to keep the ratio at 5.2 workers for every retiree—about what it was in 1960, before the collapse of our fertility rate—we’d need to import 10.8 million immigrants every year until 2050. At which point the United States would have 1.1 billion people, 73 percent of whom would be the descendants of recent immigrants.

Putting aside questions of cultural coherence—remember the joke: “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism: You may pick two”?—it would be logistically impossible to add 10.8 million immigrants a year. As demographer Phillip Longman notes, “such a flow would require the equivalent of building another New York City every ten months or so.” 

There is a supply-side problem, too. Immigrants began streaming over America’s southern border in the 1980s for several reasons. America was safer and freer. There were more and better jobs. But there was also an enormous surplus of labor in Latin America as a result of high fertility rates. In Mexico, for instance, the fertility rate was 6.82 in 1970. It dropped to 5.3 in 1980, 3.61 in 1990, and 2.75 in 2000. It now sits at 2.1. You see this trend across the entire Latin world. Some countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica, are already well below replacement. And when a country’s fertility drops below replacement, people tend to stop emigrating. Consider Puerto Rico. In 1955, Puerto Rico’s fertility rate was 4.97. (The major Puerto Rican migration to America began in the 1950s.) Over time, Puerto Rican fertility diminished. By 2000, it had dipped to 1.99. For 2010, it is estimated to be 1.65.

During this same period, emigrating from Puerto Rico to the United States became easier, and while the economic situation in Puerto Rico brightened somewhat, it did not improve dramatically. Yet the number of Puerto Ricans moving to America during that span plummeted—from 80,000 in 1955 to just 3,800 in 2008. And this took place as the population of Puerto Rico itself was nearly doubling, from 2.25 million to 3.97 million.

There is no reason to believe that the example of Puerto Rico will not translate to the rest of Latin America. To our south, fertility rates are generally still higher than our own. But the rate of decline is much steeper. The average fertility rate for Latin America in the 1960s was 6.0 children per woman; by 2005 that average had dropped to 2.5. Within a decade or two, every single country in Latin America will have a fertility rate below that of the United States. And at that point, immigration from the region may significantly diminish.


There is a constellation of factors tamping down fertility in America. And even with steady immigration, they represent our own, bottom-up adoption of a One-Child regimen. 

At the most basic level, the decline of infant mortality played a large part. In 1850, 2-in-10 white babies and 3.4-in-10 black babies died during infancy. Steady improvements in medicine, sanitation, and nutrition reduced infant mortality to asymptotic levels—today just 6.22 deaths for every 1,000 live births.

Americans also began migrating from rural areas to cities and transitioning from farm work to factories. These changes made children both less useful and more expensive. 

Social changes have affected the fertility rate, too. Some of these changes are small and simple—like the evolution of car-seat laws, which make it difficult to transport more than two children. Some—like the rise of the educated woman—are massively complex. 

One of the best predictors of fertility is education: The more educated a woman is, the fewer children she will have. The total fertility rate for American women without a high school diploma is 2.45. With each subsequent level of educational attainment, fertility falls—it drops to 1.6 for women with a graduate degree. One of the drivers of our fertility decline was the making of college de rigueur for middle-class women.

From 1879 to 1930, American men and women graduated from college at roughly the same low rate. This was as much a function of the university being the preserve of the privileged as it was of gender equality. It wasn’t until 1930 that college graduation rates between the sexes began diverging, with men becoming markedly better educated. By 1947, 2.3 men graduated from college for every woman. That divergence was not, as the feminist-industrial complex would have you believe, the result of sexism. Before the two world wars, college was open only to a small pool of wealthy elites and was partaken of by these men and women in equal measure. The G.I. Bill broadened access to college for former soldiers, who were, naturally, men. As these middle- and lower-middle-class men flooded the classrooms, a gender gap was created.

With the class restrictions lifted, however, it was only a matter of time before middle- and lower-middle-class women caught up with their male counterparts. By 1980, the balance was again even. And, by 2003, women significantly outnumbered men in college, with 1.35 women graduating for every man.

But let’s wind the clock back to the period stretching from the 1950s to the early 1970s. What’s interesting about this interregnum isn’t that men outnumbered women, but rather what it was women graduating from college did with their degrees. Nearly half of those female graduates were involved in a single field—education. And as it turns out, being a teacher is highly compatible with having babies. As more women began attending college, however, they entered a broader array of fields, many of which were less friendly to family life. For the class of 1980, for instance, only 36 percent of female graduates became teachers and that number has continued to drop.

As women entered other careers, they postponed having babies. A teacher can reasonably graduate from college at 22, begin working immediately, and if she so chooses, marry and have children in short order without losing ground in her career. By comparison, consider the life of a young woman who becomes a doctor: Graduate with a bachelor’s degree at 22; graduate from medical school at 26; finish residency at 29. If our doctor does not pursue any specialization, she can begin her career as she turns 30. Only then is childbearing even theoretically possible, and it will come at some expense to her nascent career.

The first effect of the broadening of women’s career paths was to push up the average age of marriage. In 1950, the average age of first marriage for an American woman was 20.3 years. Between 1950 and 1970—when a large percentage of women were still entering the teaching profession—that number ticked upward only slightly, to 20.8 years. By 1980 it had risen to 22.0 years; by 1990 it was 23.9, and off to the races. By 2007, the average American woman did not wed until she was 26.

The drop in fertility among women with college and advanced degrees, then, is in large part due to delayed family formation. The longer a middle-class woman waits to get married, the longer she will wait to have children. For example, in 1970, the average age of a woman in the United States giving birth to her first child was 21.4 years. In 2000, it was 24.9 years.

The American drive for education has had other subtle effects on fertility. For instance, it’s not just the length of education that diminishes fertility, but the debt-load incurred. In 1987, 9 percent of college graduates said they were delaying marriage because of their student loans and 12 percent said they were delaying children. As student debts ballooned, so did those numbers. By 2002, 14 percent said they were pushing back marriage and 21 percent said they were postponing having children because of their loans.

If the G.I. Bill could wreak so much havoc on fertility rates, imagine the effects of the last century’s two great changes in sexual life: the contraceptive pill and the legalization of on-demand abortion. Calculating the number of babies not born because of the birth control pill is impossible. But without confusing correlation and causation, it is worth noting that the pill became available in America and much of the West in 1960, the precise moment when fertility rates began heading into deep decline. 

On the other hand, it is quite easy to make an accounting of abortion’s effects. Before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the tide of public opinion in America was against abortion. Accordingly, there were relatively few abortions, even though most states allowed for early-term abortions. In 1970, for example, there were 193,491 reported legal abortions. Certainly, this number undercounts the real total because it does not include illegal abortions. But let’s take 200,000 as a baseline. In 1973, as Roe created a universal abortion right, the number of reported abortions rose to 744,600. The next year, that number rose by 20 percent, to 898,600 abortions. By this time all abortions were legal, and so we can be confident that this number is fairly accurate. Over the course of the next 15 years the number of abortions rose by almost 100 percent.

In 1973—the year of the Roe decision—there were 3.1 million babies born. Over the next 10 years that number rose only slightly, despite the fact that America’s total population was increasing quickly. Why weren’t there more babies born in the decade following Roe? Because during that time, 13.6 million were aborted—meaning that 28.5 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion. Since Roe more than 49.5 million babies have been aborted in the United States, and the fertility rate has varied inversely to the abortion rate, generally declining when abortion is on the rise and rising when abortion is on the decline.


Fertility isn’t all about sex, of course. It also involves that other great American passion: real estate. Fertility rates vary widely across the 50 states. The states with the highest are found mostly in the West, while the states with the lowest fertility are found mostly in the industrialized Northeast. The more fertile states tend to be more rural; the less fertile more urban. And the more fertile states tend to have lower land costs and, hence, costs of living. The cultural demographer Steve Sailer refers to this phenomenon as the “dirt gap.”

Beyond even the cost of real estate, housing stock influences fertility. When dramatically falling fertility first appeared in Europe after World War I, demographers went into a panic. In Sweden, researchers noticed that the small, modernist apartment buildings which had sprung up across the country were pushing couples to have fewer children. Subsequent research has demonstrated the effects of housing stock on fertility across the globe. Studies show the same results over and over—all things being equal, women living in apartments or condominiums have fewer babies than women living in single-family homes. This phenomenon has been demonstrated everywhere from New Jersey to Colombia to Great Britain to Iran. 

How much does housing type matter? A 1988 Canadian study showed that even when you control for education, income, and other factors, married couples who lived in apartment-type buildings had 0.42 fewer children over their lifetimes than married couples in single-family homes. From the 1940s until the 1960s, there was a boom in the construction of detached, single-family homes in America. Levittowns sprang up across the country and, by 1960, single-family homes represented their biggest share of American housing stock in modern times. This coincides perfectly with the Baby Boom. On the other hand, large-scale apartment and condominium complexes became more popular during the 1960s. Their percentage of the total U.S. housing stock increased by 40 percent from 1960 to 1970 and by another 23 percent from 1970 to 1980: the precise years during which America’s fertility numbers went into steep decline. 

And then there’s consumerism. It’s a cliché to complain about $800 baby strollers and designer children’s clothing. But even the clichés no longer capture the lunacy of it all. One popular baby stroller, the Bugaboo Cameleon, retails for $880. That’s a bargain compared with Avila’s innovative “round” crib. Crafted from cherry wood, it goes for $1,285. But even if you sift out the consumerist outrages, the cost of raising a child today is staggering. 

In 1960, the USDA estimated that the total cost of raising a child, from birth until age 18, was $25,229 ($185,817 in 2010 dollars)—they measured food at home and away, clothing, housing, medical care, education, transportation, and “personal care, recreation, reading and other miscellaneous expenditures.” Over the next 25 years, that cost remained reasonably constant, rising and falling by minor degrees. By 1985, it was (in real dollars) actually slightly cheaper to raise a child than it had been in 1960. But after 1985 children became steadily more expensive. By 2007, the cost of raising a child had risen 15.4 percent over the 1960 level.

The USDA, in its calculations, leaves out many of the little costs of parenthood—maternity clothes, baby furniture, toys, vitamins. Yet even these items are just nickels and dimes. The real money is in three big-ticket items that the USDA ignores: child care, college tuition, and forgone salary.

Let’s start with child care. The 2007 USDA survey reports that the average family spent $4,000 on child care during the first two years of a child’s life. In the real world, that $4,000 is little more than a mathematical construct. The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that in 2008, the average cost of full-time care for an infant from a babysitter or nanny was $9,630 per year. The average cost of full-time care for an infant in a day-care center was $14,591 per year.

The USDA also ignores college. Recall our mammoth college gender gap in 1947. Even though many more men than women were going to college, very few people were enrolled at all—only 10 percent of college-aged men and 3.4 percent of college-aged women attended a university. Today, the majority of children—and the vast majority of middle-class children—attend college. In 2006, 66 percent of high school graduates enrolled in either a two- or four-year degree program within a year of completing high school.

These costs beggar belief. For the 2009 school year, the average tuition at a state college was $7,020. Private colleges averaged $26,273. Neither of those figures includes room, board, and other expenses—another $12,755 for full-time students not living at home (though only $12,368 for state-school students). So a child starting college today will cost her parents somewhere from $77,552 (for an average state-school degree) to $156,112 (for an average private degree). Remember, please, that we’re talking averages here. If your bundle of joy is lucky enough to gain entrance to an elite university, the four-year tab will easily top $200,000. Over the last 35 years, the period during which college became a necessary expense for middle-class life, the price of college increased—in real dollars—by 1,000 percent. 

Finally, there’s the matter of forgone income. Recall that the USDA assumes virtually no expenditures for child care. This implies that one parent stays home at least until the child reaches school age. In The Empty Cradle (2004), Phillip Longman explored the cost of lost income by mothers and calculates that a woman making $45,000 a year who stays home until her child is school-aged and then returns to work part-time forgoes $823,736 by the time her child turns 18.

Add that number to the others and you’re talking $1.1 million to raise a single child. That’s a lot of money for a middle-class couple. In 2007, the median income for Americans in their prime child-bearing years (ages 25 to 34) was just $30,846 (or $40,739 for those with a college degree). People like to say that buying a house is the biggest purchase you’ll ever make. Well, the median price of a home in 2008 was $180,100. Having a baby is like buying six houses, all at once. Except that you can’t (legally) sell them—and after 13 years they’ll tell you they hate you.


There was a time when such indignities were worth suffering because children served a practical purpose: They cared for their parents in old age. Oftentimes physically; always financially. Beginning with the New Deal, the logistics of this social compact began to change. In 1935, the Social Security Act established government payouts for retirees. These benefits were paid for by a new payroll tax on those working. Over time, Social Security payments expanded, the taxes increased, and new benefits—such as Medicare—were added. 

It’s difficult to overstate the effects of these initiatives. For starters, they created an enormous new burden for workers. In 1955, the median American family paid 17.3 percent in income taxes. By 1998, the median one-earner family paid 37.6 percent in income taxes; two-earner families paid 40.9 percent. Social Security and Medicare placed an increasing burden on families at the same time that the cost of children was also increasing.

There were other consequences. Where people’s offspring had for centuries seen to the financial needs of their parents, retired people with no offspring now had access to a set of comparable benefits. And in a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. “Moral imperative,” of course, is a euphemism for “religious compulsion.” There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people. 

The best indicator of actual fertility is “aspirational fertility”—the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their “ideal family size” since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families. Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.

And the truth is, America needs more of such statements. The United Nations Population Division’s projection of our demographic future makes for stark reading. Native fertility rates are so low that without a continual influx of immigrants to stave off population decline, our population will shrink from 308 million to 290 million by 2050.

Our challenge is to balance three needs: (1) a stable population, (2) a plausible ratio of workers-to-retirees, and (3) a manageable number of immigrants. Yet, for instance, to keep the worker-support ratio at high levels would require, as we saw earlier, gargantuan levels of immigration. Keeping immigration at a reasonable level (the U.N. uses 760,000 immigrants a year as a baseline) would mean that our population would increase to 349 million in 2050, but that our worker-support ratio would be cut in half. If we cut off immigration altogether the worker-support ratio would be even lower, and in addition, we’d face rapid population decline.

The simplest answer is for Americans to have more babies.


Throughout history, governments have tried to get people to procreate. Augustus levied a “bachelor tax” on unmarried, aristocratic men. In 1927, Mussolini imposed a tax on all unmarried men between the ages of 25 and 65. The Soviet Union spent the last 50 years of its existence attempting to cajole it citizenry into having more children. In 1944, for instance, Stalin created the Motherhood Medal, given to any woman who bore at least six children. None of these attempts was successful. But they raise the question of what smart pro-natalist policies would look like in America today. 

The Social Security regime is the most obvious and easily addressable problem. Longman proposes a “Parental Dividend” system by which a couple’s FICA taxes would be reduced by one-third with the birth of their first child, by two-thirds with the birth of a second, and then eliminated completely with the third (until the youngest child turns 18). Other, more complicated schemes abound. Regardless of the means, though, the goal is the same: Reduce the disconnect between the costs of creating new taxpayers and the benefits of receiving government pensions.

The costs of raising children could also be undercut by reforming the college system. The modern college degree functions less as an educational tool than as a credentialing badge—a marker which gives employers a vague estimate of a person’s intelligence, social milieu, and work ability. The reason employers need this badge is that, thanks to an obscure Supreme Court case, they aren’t allowed to ask for test scores the way colleges are.

In the 1971 case Griggs v. Duke Power, the Court held that employers could not rely on IQ-type tests if minorities performed relatively poorly on them. Blacks and Hispanics display a persistent underperformance on such tests, making it impossible for employers to ask for test scores. (As the recent Ricci case proved, even a test that has been sufficiently vetted beforehand for a lack of bias can cause trouble if minorities perform poorly on it.) So employers launder their request for test scores through the college system since colleges are allowed to use such considerations. The universities get rich, students and their parents go into hock, and everyone pretends that Acme Widgets is hiring young Suzy because they value her B.A. in English from Haverford, and not because her admission to Haverford proved that she is bright—a fact that a free, three-hour written test would have demonstrated just as well. If Griggs were rolled back, it would upend the college system at a stroke.

Finally, we could address the dirt gap—the underlying cost of land, which drives the cost of living and gives rise to the dramatic differences in fertility we see across the country. People often make decisions on where to live based on employment. High concentrations of jobs are found in intensely urban areas—Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago—which have correspondingly high land costs. This is why we have the accurate stereotype of the working couple who move from the city to the exurbs once they decide to have kids.

Geography is unpleasantly resistant to social planning. There are only so many acres of land in Manhattan, and there’s nothing anyone can to do to make it less expensive (though correcting the absurdity of New York City’s rent-control/rent-stabilization system would help). But we could make the suburbs more accessible to cities by improving our highway system. Since 1970, the “vehicle lane miles” (that’s the metric traffic engineers use) consumed by Americans have risen by 150 percent. During that period we added 5 percent to our highway capacity. Now you know why we have so much traffic.

The answer is not building more public transportation. Parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide. The solution is building more roads. As Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam noted wryly in Grand New Party (2008), Dallas has twice as much pavement-per-person as Los Angeles and half the traffic. And, not coincidentally, a higher fertility rate. An improved highway system would make it easier for couples to have access to both the concentration of jobs cities provide and the affordable housing that the suburbs offer.


Yet even if we adopt such measures, they may do little to change American fertility. It turns out that a government cannot convince people to have children; all it can do is help people to have the children they already want.

In 1965, Singapore gained full independence from the British, and the government embarked on a program of rapid industrialization. Among its initiatives were increased urbanization and an attempt to jumpstart women’s rates of college graduation and participation in the workforce. Singapore’s fertility rate was already in decline, having fallen from 5.45 in 1960 to 4.7 in 1965. As part of modernization, however, the government wanted to drive the fertility rate down even faster. In 1966, the government created the “Family Planning and Population Board” and launched a propaganda campaign, using messages such as “Stop at Two” and “Small Families, Brighter Future.” The most popular slogan, recounted in numerous posters and public service ads, was “Girl or Boy, Two Is Enough.”

Accompanying this bright, cheery campaign was an array of less gentle policies. Abortion was sanctioned—and even encouraged—at every stage. Parents who had more than two children were punished with no paid maternity leave and higher hospital charges for the delivery of the extra babies. Couples were encouraged to volunteer for sterilization. Parents who did so after having just one or two children were reimbursed for the medical costs of delivering those babies and their children were given preference in registering for the best schools.

The tactics were frighteningly effective. In 1976—just ten years after the campaign began—Singapore reached its target of 2.1. They had pushed their fertility rate down 53 percent in a decade. But the rate kept diving, down to 1.74 by 1980. The biggest fertility decline came from the elites: Singapore, like every other industrialized country, found that the more education a woman had and the better her job, the less likely she was to have children.

In 1983, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, spoke about the country’s demographic problem with a candor that is the luxury of autocrats:


[W]e shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers. .  .  . You just can’t be doing a full-time, heavy job like that of a doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children. .  .  . Our most valuable asset is in the ability of our people, yet we are frittering away this asset through the unintended consequences of changes in our education policy and equal career opportunities for women. This has affected their traditional role as mothers.

In an attempt to boost fertility rates among the elites, the government began offering big tax breaks to highly educated women who had three or more children. A matchmaking service was created by the government for university graduates to encourage young professional men and women to get married. None of it worked. Educated women still shunned motherhood. Even worse, Singapore realized that lower-class women had stopped having babies, too. By 1984, Singapore’s fertility rate was 1.62 and falling.

The government dissolved the Family Planning and Population Board. “Two Is Enough” was replaced by “Have Three Or More Children If You Can,” a slogan broadcast on TV and radio and pushed in print ads and on billboards. Posters abounded proclaiming the joy and fulfillment of family life. Tax-incentives were given to families with more than three children, as were school admissions preferences. Unpaid maternity leave for government workers was increased from one year to four years. For a brief period these pro-natalist measures seemed to be working, but they merely delayed the downward march. By 1999, the fertility rate stood at 1.49.

In 2000, the government announced a series of new initiatives. The first was the “Baby Bonus” program, which paid families for having children: $9,000 for the second child and $18,000 for the third. The tax code was modified to give a hefty break to mothers under the age of 31 who had a second child. The government created “Child Development Accounts,” which function like a 401(k) for kids, with the government matching parents’ savings dollar-for-dollar. Mothers were granted 12 weeks of paid maternity leave with each birth.

The government offered better, larger housing for families with children and made it easier for young married couples to buy a home. They even embarked on a program to find grandparents housing close to their grandchildren, to help ease the burden of childcare. At the same time, the government did its best to undo the disincentives it had created a few years earlier. The $10,000 bonus for sterilization was scrapped. Officials were reluctant to ban abortion outright, but launched a public campaign against it. Women with fewer than three children who sought either sterilization or an abortion were required to attend counseling before any procedure would be performed.

Singapore had become a pro-natalist utopia, where aggressive government intervention was married to a willingness to talk frankly about demographic failure and uphold traditionalist mores. (In 1994, for instance, the prime minister spoke out against illegitimacy, calling single motherhood “wrong” and claiming that the “respectable part of society” should never accept it because “by removing the stigma, we may encourage more women to have children without getting married.”) And yet the effort has met with total and unremitting failure. In 2001, Singapore’s fertility rate was 1.41. By 2004 it was 1.24. 

Today it is 1.1. Despite all the incentives, all of the public campaigns, all of the pleading, the average woman in Singapore can barely be bothered to have a single child.

Jonathan V. Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, was a 2009 Phillips Foundation fellow.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers