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More Americans are saying larger families are ideal, survey shows

It might seem like no one has more than two kids anymore. With climate change threatening our future, an unsure political and economic landscape and rising costs of child care, why would they?

Well,  a new Gallup survey shows, while many people may not actually have bigger families today, Americans’ desire for larger families just hit a 50-year high. 

They survey shows that Americans are now evenly divided in their views of whether a smaller family or a larger one is ideal. About 45% said a family of three or more kids is ideal. Just 2% said the ideal family doesn’t include any children. 

So, what’s driving these trends?

The Show sat down with Bethany Bustamante Van Vleet, a teaching professor at the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, and asked her first for her reaction to these numbers. 

BETHANY BUSTAMANTE VAN VLEET: It didn't particularly surprise me because it's been trending in that direction for at least for a few years. We saw similar stories and reports that we're seeing now, about families not necessarily wanting — that's an important distinction— but saying that the ideal family is three or more kids. In 2018, we saw this come out, so it's just moving in that same direction where the gap is narrowing between what they think are the ideal numbers in terms of people who want two or fewer or three or more.

LAUREN GILGER: OK, so let's talk about the sort of historic trends that might give us some clues as to why this is happening and why the public opinion on this seems to be shifting. Because for a long time, conventional wisdom was sort of like 2.5 children and then it was two children and then it was even less, maybe one child. So what happens historically that guides these trends?

VAN VLEET: Well, what's interesting is they've been doing this study since 1936. This is data collected by Gallup and actually, we were a lot higher than 2.5 kids.

So in 1945 they actually reached the peak of the number of ideal children that people reported and 77% of people, the ideal number for them was three or more children. And that's a pretty high number. And it trended down a little bit, got into the 60% of people that wanted three or more children.

And then in the late ‘60s, a book came out that was basically about the dangers of overpopulation. And all of a sudden that's when we see the trend decrease significantly, that the number of people that want three or more children decreased. And ever since then, it's kind of been trending upwards with some up and down — particularly when we see kind of economic turmoil, that ideal decreases. When we see strong economies, the ideal number of children tends to increase but nothing huge. And what we're seeing now is just kind of like continued trending upwards.

When you look at the data, it's really interesting to see that the number of people that wanted three or more children used to be so high compared to the number of people who wanted two or fewer was very low. And it's in those ‘60s, ‘70s that they crisscross and all of a sudden, more people think the ideal is two or fewer children and a lot fewer people wanted three or more children.

GILGER: So you mentioned a few factors that are at play here that I want to dig into a little bit. State of the economy, are environmental concerns something that play in? Because there is this big narrative right now that people are choosing not to have any children at all because of climate change. And what kind of world are you bringing them into?

VAN VLEET: We know those are things that impact people's decisions to have children. And so that's where we have a really important distinction, because what impacts what people say is the ideal number of children is different from what impacts how many children people want to have. Those are not the same thing. If I ask somebody on the street, “What's the ideal number of children in a family?” That doesn't mean it's necessarily for their family. It could mean that they grew up with a sister and they loved it — so two is the ideal, but they never want a child. So it's really tricky.

We know what impacts or we know some of the things that seem to impact the choices people make in having children. And we can ask people what impacts their decisions. And we have seen that concerns about the environment definitely can be a factor and worrying about what the environment can support.

We know that concerns about being able to afford children impacts how many children people have. If day care and child care is so expensive that people might want more children, but they choose fewer because they don't think that they can afford that and be able to keep working — generally concerns about being able to support their children. We have kind of a — in the world now, we feel like we should have certain things before we have children often.: Can I get a house first? Is my income high enough? If I reach these steps, am I where I want to be in my career?”

So those things impact having children as well and then the general cultural, social norms and expectations play into those decisions that we make too. So we know it impacts people making choices to have children. Now, whether those things impact the ideal number of Children in these surveys is a separate question. It could be that the ideal family size is three children, if the environment was wonderful and we weren't polluting and if I was making enough money, if I own a house, that would be the ideal family, right?

We're not asking them the ideal family for them at this moment. And these measures and what people want for them and for the number of children they want changes. Moment to moment their life circumstances, they get a new job, they lose a job, they have a child and decide 13 is no longer the ideal number of children, right? So it's very complicated, because we're measuring different things.

GILGER: Yeah, absolutely. So, we'll get into that more in a moment. But one thing you mentioned there that I want to talk about more is this idea that we wait longer, right? Like, you want to have a career, your education squared away, house, etcetera before you decide to have children today, which is really pushing back the age at which most women have a child. That's got to affect the number of children women end up having. Right? 

VAN VLEET: And that's a big factor that people are looking at right now, we see fertility rates are really low and it could be that people are making these choices. ... If we want to get X, Y and Z done by a certain time, we automatically have to wait to have children at a certain age. And even with fertility treatment, since the things that we've got now — which are wonderful — it's still a much lower likelihood of having children as you get older. And so when we make these choices, it is impacting likely the fertility rate.

GILGER: So you're talking about basically a gap between what's reported in a survey like this, which they do every single year and have for so long, right? This ideal number, what women or families might want to have in terms of the number of children. But then the reality of how many children families actually do have, how big is that gap right now?

VAN VLEET: It's pretty significant. So right now, I think the ideal number of children was somewhere around 2.7, is what they're reporting. And the fertility rate is somewhere around 1.6, 1.8. And so that it's almost a whole child difference between what people are saying is ideal and what people are choosing to have. And that gap, I think, is really interesting. It's somewhere that's worth exploring and understanding.

GILGER: So, let's talk about what might be contributing to that. We talked about climate change, environmental concerns. It does feel as if this idea of wanting to have more children or thinking the ideal family would have more children is very counterintuitive at the moment, because the world feels very uncertain for so many people. Whether it's wars, whether it's the economy, whether it's our political division and climate change, as we said ...  What do you think is going on in terms of the calculations people are making?

VAN VLEET: Again, that's hard because the measure is about the ideal number. And maybe there is a sense of, I don't know, hopeful optimism that when there's so much conflict and, kind of, uncertainty that maybe people turn to this hope for future generations. But again, the reality very well could be that all of these things that we're seeing and the upheaval on so many levels of people's lives is keeping that fertility rate low. And what's interesting is it's actually younger generations that want, what think the ideal is the higher number of children. And so we might assume that the grandparents of the world are saying we should have six children. But actually, we're seeing these 20- to 30-year-olds saying that more children, three or more children is ideal, but yet their fertility rates are lower than past generations.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.