Honey, We Shrunk the Family

Timothy P. Carney’s Family Unfriendly explores plunging American fertility and how to get out of the baby bust.

In 204 B.C., the Romans imported a new foreign cult. When the barge bringing the cult statue to Rome got stuck in the shallow waters of the Tiber, an aristocratic young woman, Claudia Quinta, miraculously pulled the rope to draw it in single-handedly. As her name tells us, she was the fifth daughter in her family.

The reason this story first stood out to me years ago is the same reason it came to mind while reading journalist Timothy P. Carney’s new book, Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be: Fifth kids are rare. Not coincidentally, they’re hard. “Comedian Jim Gaffigan has offered a vivid description of having a fifth child,” Carney writes. “Imagine you’re drowning. And someone hands you a baby.”

Fifth daughters were rare in ancient Rome for a different reason than they are in modern America, where we no longer have to provide good dowries to contract marriages for each girl (though college tuition might be a comparable expense). Rather, the contemporary US has joined the rest of the West—and a rising share of the Global South—in an unprecedented, apparently unrelenting baby bust. Not only are fifth kids uncommon these days, even second kids are increasingly rare, and the number of childless singles and couples is at a record high. Economics are just one factor here. We’re looking at a major cultural shift.

Just how bad are things? “The average thirty-five-year-old American woman in 2020 had just above 1.5 kids, which is the lowest number on record,” Carney notes. This is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children, and it’s bad news for everyone—though many don’t …

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