People wanted more children in 2000s, but had fewer

By Razib Khan | July 16, 2012 7:19 pm

The readers of this weblog are relatively non-fecund, at least going by reader surveys. But I was curious nonetheless about the attitudes toward number of children, and realized goals of number of children, in the General Social Survey. I decided to look at two variables:



The former asks the respondent how many children they had, the latter how many they’d like to have. I restricted the sample to whites ages 45-65 for every survey year. I then combined all the years of a particular decade, so you have 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. For demographics I looked at highest educational attainment, and household income indexed to 1986 real value dollars (so they are comparable across decades).

Two major takeaways:

1) Education matters more than income in terms of number of children. Having lots of education tends to reduce family size. No great surprise.

2) Ideal number of children increased in the 2000s, but the decline in average number of children continued.

There is often talk in the literature on the disjunction between ideal family size in Third World nations and the realized family size, with a larger number of children than women may want. What is less discussed is the inverse discussion. It seems that Americans want larger families than they manage to have. Of course, there is the distinction between avowed and realized preferences here.


1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
< HS 2.78 2.99 2.84 2.55
HS 2.64 2.86 2.53 2.2
J. College 3.11 2.37 2.29 2.12
Bachelor 2.68 2.39 2.11 1.78
Graduate 2.52 2.41 2.05 1.74
< $20 K 2.49 2.76 2.47 2.13
$20-40 K 2.68 2.83 2.48 2.04
$40-80 K 2.8 2.87 2.4 2.1
$80 K > 3.24 2.8 2.32 2.09
1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
< HS 3.1 2.99 2.76 2.79
HS 2.95 2.83 2.65 2.9
J. College 3.1 2.59 2.62 3.19
Bachelor 3.06 2.82 2.76 3.04
Graduate 2.87 2.72 3.27 3.12
< $20 K 3.06 2.93 2.81 2.93
$20-40 K 2.99 2.86 2.74 2.97
$40-80 K 2.9 2.74 2.71 3
$80 K > 3.33 2.79 2.69 3.04

MORE ABOUT: Demographics
  • David

    Interestingly, it looked like in the 70’s, income mattered more than education, and fertility was positively correlated with income. I’d love to see the data further back. Were rich whites always more fecund before the 80’s? I’m aware of Gregory Clark’s work in which he found that the high fertility of England’s rich people in the industrial revolution led to significant downward mobility. Did we have this in the US as well?

  • Tomasz R.

    @David – additional interesting data: In 2010 in Poland polish women have TFR of 1.4, while those who migrated to the UK have TFR of 2.5.

    The factors may be: higher affluence in the UK, including reasonable prices of homes, combined with child-friendly culture.

    On polish villages there’s a pro-high-child-number culture, large homes but the avg. wealth is low. In polish towns there is some anti-high-child-number culture, especially in the rich cities, apartments are extremaly overpriced compared to salaries (the bubble hasn’t burst yet), and some (not all) employers discriminate against women at reproductive age or those who are pregnant. The culture of working + raising a child is strong: communists required women to work, and before communism most people were farmers so women worked too.

    High number of children (>=4) is usually associated with either being a strong religious believer, or living in or coming from a traditional village family.

  • Mike the Mad Biologist

    Any idea how this breaks down by gender? It seems women’s attitudes are critical here.

  • Sandgroper

    Mike scores!

    In Africa, letting little girls go to school is emerging as the best hope for controlling population growth.

  • JG

    @ Tomasz R.

    What kind of Polish women tend to migrate to the UK? Educated, skilled, professional types? Or unskilled labor, nannies, etc.?

  • Tomasz R.

    Data from 2007 shows that “Research conducted by PKO Bank Polski, Poland’s largest retail bank, shows that 63% of Polish immigrants to the UK are aged between 24 and 35 with 40% possessing a university degree.” Newest data shows that “About 85% of ‘British’ Poles are employed, however many of them work in positions disproportionate to their tertiary education gained back in Poland.”.

    This is not necessairly a job degeneration for them since in Poland many people work on positions lower than their talents and education anyway, since there’s less technology & science jobs and spendings per capita than in more developed countries. Same with some other intellectual or creative sectors – book writing, film making, music etc.

    From a personal knowledge we also know that UK got many welfare seekers, who went there to get the benefits. In Poland the welfare benefits are given, but they are too low to survive on them. Also many criminals dissapeared from Poland suspiciously coinciding with the dates when the borders become open.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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