The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Promising Indicators?

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

New Research has noted how the labor-force participation rates of women has remained largely flat since 1995, even dipping a bit among married mothers with children at home (see “The End of an Era,” May 2007, and “Moms Still Stay Home,” July 2006). Whether these trends will continue is not clear, but a report from the National Center for Health Statistics documenting rising U.S. fertility rates offer empirical reasons why the labor-force pull back among mothers may not be a fluke.

The report estimates that more than 4.3 million babies were born in the United States in 2007, the highest number of births ever registered in a single year, surpassing the peak of the postwar baby boom in 1957. Representing a 1 percent increase over 2006, the increase in U.S. births was experienced among all races and nearly all age groups. More revealing, the total fertility rate (TFR) among American women of childbearing age also increased in 2007, bringing the average number of babies born per woman to 2.1225, the second consecutive year since 1971 that the TFR has been above replacement level. Like the absolute number, the TFR by race and Hispanic origin rose “significantly” for all groups. The only downside is that the data reveal that births to unwed mothers continue to climb (see “The Weakness of Welfare Reform,” p. 230).

To what extent these fertility increases might drive the labor-force participation rate of married women down further in future years is not clear. While the TFR plummeted (from a high of 3.8 children per woman in 1957 to a low of 1.7 children in 1976) at the same time the labor-force participation rate of married women jumped (from 30 percent in 1957 to 45 percent in 1976), both measures increased simultaneously until 1994. Since then, the labor-force participation rate of married women has held more or less constant at around 61 percent (with modest declines among married mothers with children under 18 during the first decade of the 2000s) as the TFR has inched up to a 35-year high.

If the TFR continues to rise, and significantly above the current 2.1 children per woman, the modest decline in the labor-force participation rate of married women could become more substantial. But at least for now, rising U.S. birth rates, confirming the United States as the fertility leader among industrialized nations, and the modest pull back of mothers from the labor force, represent indicators of promise for the family and for children.

(Brady E. Hamilton et al., “Births; Preliminary Data for 2007,” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 57, No. 12, March 18, 2009, National Center for Health Statistics; “Women in the Labor Force: A Datebook,” U.S. Department of Labor, Report 118, September 2009; and Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2010 Edition, Tables 584 and 586.)