Utahns are having fewer kids. Why that may be a problem and what we should do about it.

Sen. Mitt Romney wants to give parents monthly payments to ease financial burdens, but will the declining birthrate bounce back?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justin and Amy Beagley spend time with their daughters Cora, 5, and Sedona, 2, near their home in Bluffdale on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. The young couple wanted to have kids shortly after they married in 2012 but worried about their finances, so they put it off a few years.

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Amy Beagley is a Utahn who knew what she wanted. Soon after marrying in 2012, she was ready to have a child, leave her job and become a stay-at-home mom.

Her husband, Justin, was supportive, at least until he looked over their finances.

They both worked and earned the same amount of money. Amy’s plan meant they’d see their take-home pay cut in half, and that would make their budget tight. They decided to wait.

“It was just really, really hard for me because so many of my friends would just get married and have a kid,” she said. “I have a friend that I worked with who would always say the phrase ‘it’s just another peanut butter and jelly sandwich,’ but it’s really not.”

The Bluffdale couple’s calculus for growing their family is not that uncommon, but multiply it a few million times over and the effects are huge.

The fertility rate in Utah and in the nation is falling and, while there are some positive reasons for that, including a drop in the teen pregnancy rate and a rise in women pursuing their desired careers, it is causing concern from some who fret that fewer children eventually may destabilize the country, even the world.

Count Sen. Mitt Romney among those worried enough about the declining birthrate that he wants to ease, if not eliminate, the financial pressure on parents or would-be parents. His proposal is one of many floating around Washington, a place often driven by one crisis after another. But the Utah Republican sees this long-range trend as more fundamental.

“For any society, any civilization to endure,” he said, “it must replace itself.”

Romney wants to give families a monthly check when they have a child, starting when the woman is still pregnant. The goal, in part, is to cut child poverty, but it is also to spur couples to have children.

His plan comes as attention grows around the global shift toward smaller families.

How Utah is the same and different

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah led the nation in population growth in the past decade. Its economy is scorching hot. Home prices are rising. And yet the number of babies born keeps dropping. So does the state’s total fertility rate.

In 2018, Utah, the youngest state in the nation, dipped below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, and demographers are not expecting a rebound.

While many of the reasons for that drop mirror those in the rest of the country — including prospective parents delaying childbirth and worrying about stagnant pay and the cost of child care — there are specific influences at play in Utah.

The cultural pressure, for instance, on members of the state’s predominant faith to have more children has receded as top Latter-day Saint leaders have emphasized that it’s up to couples to decide how many kids to have and when to have them, even reminding the rank and file “not [to] judge one another in this matter.”

The state also has increasingly attracted newcomers who move here to work or recreate, and they are not having as many children.

In Utah and throughout much of the world, today’s parents are having smaller families than those of their parents or grandparents.

Some see this shift as a positive for parents, for children and for the planet. Others fear a shortage of workers and an overreliance on immigration. However you view it, smaller families and eventually shrinking populations will transform communities and cause huge economic shifts.

And the pandemic has only sped up these worldwide trends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the U.S. birthrate fell by 4% in 2020, the biggest drop in decades, and it comes during a persistent slide.

New U.S. Census Bureau projections show that China’s population will likely start to slip in a few years, dropping from 1.4 billion in 2027 to 912 million in 2100. In a bid to change this, China is now allowing people to have three children; the cap used to be two.

The Census Bureau’s projections for the United States do not yet extend to 2100, only to 2060, and during that time the U.S. population is expected to continue to rise, though slowly, to more than 404 million. In that year, the world population would be 10.2 billion.

Pam Perlich, a demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, says all of the data foretells a time when the human population contracts. Part of this is clearly economic anxiety after the Great Recession followed by COVID-19. Housing costs are skyrocketing. For many, it takes two incomes to pay the bills, making it ever harder to have multiple children.

But Perlich points to other causes as well, and some are downright healthy.

Teen pregnancy is down throughout the nation. In Utah, there were 44 pregnancies for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 17 back in 1998. In 2017, that dropped to eight per 1,000 girls.

Women have more career opportunities today. Those who do choose this route often push off having children for a few years.

Then there’s a philosophical shift in how people see families.

“For the baby boom generation, it was ‘let’s just get married and have kids, and we’ll figure it out,’” Perlich said. “But for the millennials, and you see this in the Pew Research on generations, having children is more of a capstone. It’s more like ‘we’ve gotten things in order. Now we’re preparing to bring children into the world.’”

Amy Beagley has seen this happen among her friends and in her own family.

“We have different ideas about how we want to raise our kids nowadays,” she said. “I think that we spent a lot of time thinking about personal development and wanting to be there for each kid. You know, you only have so many hands.”

Couples play the waiting game

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justin and Amy Beagley spend time with their daughters Cora, 5, and Sedona, 2, near their home in Bluffdale on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. The young couple wanted to have kids shortly after they married in 2012 but worried about their finances, so they put it off a few years.

The Beagleys saved money and Justin went back to school studying information technology. A few years later, he had a new career and was banking more money. Their first daughter, Cora, was born in 2016 and their second girl, Sedona, followed a few years later. The couple are still thinking about having a third. If they do, it will definitely be their last.

The financial fear has now subsided.

“At this point, I make as much money as we did together,” Justin Beagley, now 36, said. “So, I mean, we’re back to where we started.”

Looking back on it, he said they may have waited longer if they didn’t buy a home shortly after getting married.

“If I didn’t already own a home,” he said, “I don’t even know how much more discouraging it would be to have a kid.”

Like many Americans, they have fewer children than their parents and so do their siblings. Justin Beagley has four full siblings, and none has more than two children. Amy Beagley, 34, has two siblings and, so far, one of them has a child, while the other has none.

The Beagleys, their siblings and their friends are the people Romney had in mind when he created his new proposal, meant to remove financial barriers.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to reporters as he walks on the Senate subway on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Washington.

Romney wants to pay parents now

Romney worries about major economic problems if the fertility rate doesn’t bounce back, but he’s also motivated by surveys showing people say their ideal family size is larger than their actual family size.

“If you want to help families that want to have children and at the same time help the preservation of our civilization,” he said, “we need to find a way to provide some financial support when they need it.”

The Utah Republican’s idea is to eliminate some tax incentives that give families a once-a-year boost and replace them with money sent to families each month.

Romney’s Family Security Act would give $350 a month until a child turns 6. The payments would kick in during the latter half of a pregnancy. Families would get $250 a month until the child turns 18. For larger families, this benefit would cap at $1,250 a month, and the checks would be handled through the Social Security Administration.

This might sound familiar. The Democrats put a temporary plan in the latest coronavirus aid package that’s similar. Those monthly payments are to start in July. The plan, heralded by President Joe Biden, comes on top of other assistance programs and is set to expire at year’s end. Democrats are pushing legislation to extend it for another four years. Some want it to become permanent.

Asked if getting a monthly check from the government would have encouraged them to have kids sooner, the Beagleys said yes.

“I imagine that would have definitely made us feel a lot more secure in making that decision,” said Justin Beagley. His wife agreed, saying it would have hastened their choice to have a child by a few years.

Unlike Biden’s plan, Romney’s proposal would eliminate the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF sends money to each state, which has leeway on how to use it. It also drops some tax credits like the head-of-household status and the child and dependent care credit. To ensure it doesn’t add to the deficit, Romney’s plan also erases a deduction on state and local taxes that largely benefits the wealthy. Democrats on the coasts are trying to protect this deduction.

Romney sees enough similarity between his plan and Biden’s that he wants to work with the White House to pass something permanent that includes monthly checks.

“Right now, we spend almost $500 billion a year in family support programs,” he said, “but oftentimes this support comes at a time when it’s not ideally suited to the needs of raising a child.”

Getting a credit at the end of the tax year might be nice, but it doesn’t help families pay for groceries all year.

Lee, Rubio seek work requirement

Romney’s plan has received praise from the left and the right. It has also faced criticism, primarily for not requiring parents to have a job.

His Utah GOP colleague, Sen. Mike Lee, has teamed with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on efforts to expand the child tax credit to help families. This would not include monthly payments and would require people to work.

Lee and Rubio have panned Biden’s plan, but their criticism also applies to Romney’s. They don’t like “simply handing out cash to parents, including ones already on welfare or in households where nobody is working.”

The two Republicans put out a statement that in part reads: “This kind of universal basic income makes more Americans dependent on government and severs the vital elements — work, marriage, community, and beyond — required to raise healthy families. In doing so, they unraveled the bipartisan welfare reforms previously passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president.”

Romney likes his proposal as is, saying it allows families to make the decision to have a parent stay at home.

“I would rather let couples decide whether they both want to work or whether one of them wants to remain home to be involved in raising the child,” he said, noting that’s why his plan offers more money for younger children.

But he is willing to negotiate, not wanting the work requirement debate to derail the idea.

“If in discussions with other Republicans or Democrats,” he said, “we felt there needed to be an indication of work either in the past or in the present before one qualifies for the program, I would be open to that discussion.”

In the end, Romney believes Congress can make a difference, passing legislation that makes it easier for people to have children. And if that happens, he expects the fertility rate to rise.

“If people knew they could afford to have a child,” he said, “why, we would be replacing ourselves as a society rather than shrinking, as we’re doing.”

Natalie Gochnour, director of the Gardner Policy Institute and a Republican public policy veteran in Utah, likes that Romney’s proposal would reduce childhood poverty, benefiting working parents and those who stay at home. She likes that he’s trying to do this without adding to the debt. And while she understands laws will influence the fertility rate, she doesn’t like that as a goal.

“I guess I’m just fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea that government gets very involved in thinking about family size,” she said. “It’s so complicated, and it’s a personal choice.”

Perlich, the demographer, calls Romney’s plan “a great first step” that would help families. But she’s skeptical it will turn the demographic tide.

“If you set everything up... where the success of the entire enterprise is based on having greater and greater population,” she said, “you’re signing up for some real problems.”

She argues policymakers need to consider more changes, preparing for a nation with an aging workforce and fewer kids. She sees possible changes in Social Security and payroll taxes as well as an increased focus on education.

But will the trend hit Utah? Perlich is not saying that. The state’s population may well continue to rise for decades as people move here, and births will likely stay higher in Utah than elsewhere. What she is pretty certain of is that the challenges facing the nation will be felt here regardless.

“Just because you’re in a particular neighborhood, you see people with three or four kids, a lot of them with big families,” she said, “that doesn’t mean that your neighborhood is insulated from the larger societal implications of this now-over-a-century trend of declining fertility.”

What about Utah’s present and future?

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah has long had one of the nation’s highest fertility rates, driven by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and by immigrants coming here to work.

But those trends, too, have changed. While Latter-day Saint leaders teach married couples that it is a “privilege” to bear, nurture and rear kids, the “decision about how many children to have and when to have them is extremely personal and private. It should be left between the couple and the Lord.”

Talk from church leaders to have a “quiver full” of children has virtually vanished, though Romney pushed this as recently as 2013.

Meanwhile, admonitions against Latter-day Saint mothers working outside the home have greatly lessened, while exhortations for women to pursue their educations have grown. As higher numbers of women in the faith have launched careers, reductions in family size have followed.

The traditionally large family sizes in Utah have run up against the now-debunked predictions about runaway overpopulation in the 1960s and concerns about the impact on the environment or social services. But that average family size has gotten smaller, dropping from about 3.31 children per woman in the 1980s to about 2.42 in a 2016 survey of Latter-day Saints.

And while many of the immigrants who came to Utah in the 1980s and 1990s came from places with larger family sizes, their children have assimilated, Perlich said, having roughly as many children as native-born people.

Utah is now ranked third in total fertility rate behind North Dakota and South Dakota. In 2019, Utah’s rate was 1.99 children per woman and the nation’s was 1.71. Utah fell below the replacement rate of 2.1 in 2018. The 2020 numbers are not yet out, but a decline is expected.

Last year, Utah welcomed 46,510 babies, according to preliminary numbers. That was the seventh straight year of declines. And it is the lowest yearly number since 1999.

This comes as the cost of raising a child continues to swell. The U.S. government estimated that on average it takes $233,610 to care for a child to its 18th birthday, not counting the cost of college.

As the world comes out of the pandemic and the economy levels out, it’s possible the fertility rate will stop falling or at least fall more slowly. It’s possible births will rebound in Utah and elsewhere, even if the days of averaging three children per woman are long gone. It’s possible policies like Romney’s will remove barriers.

But what the goal should be, according to Gochnour, is a world where people have the children they want, whether that’s none, one or more.