by Pete Mazzaccaro

Last week, the New York Times attracted a lot of attention for a story on declining birth rates in the United States. The report, by Claire Cain Miller of the Times’ UpShot data reporting blog, occupied much of its time with an extensive survey that found women had a multitude of reasons for not having children, ranging from economic insecurity to feeling like they wanted more leisure time.

The photo with the story was a young woman hanging out on a couch with her cat – a prototypical “cat lady,” a spinster in the terminology of yore.

But there’s a reason young women are better off with cats than kids today.

Financial concerns for would-be parents are by far the biggest reason. But they, too, present a multi-faceted problem. In the survey Miller reviewed, 64 percent said they were putting off children because child care was too expensive, and 40 percent said they were concerned about the lack of paid family leave.

The result is that the fertility rate fell to 60.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2017, a decline of 3 percent from 2016, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. It represents not only the single biggest annual drop but also brings the nation’s birth rate to its lowest point since 1987.

While concerns over the cost of starting a family have always been present in American society, the worries of today’s young people are legitimate.

First, Americans born in 1980 are the most likely to earn less money than their parents since World War II. While Americans born in the 1940s were 92 percent likely to earn more than their parents, those born in the 80s are only 50 percent likely to make more money than the generation before them.

In addition to those stagnant and declining wages, costs of living are going up, particularly for those things essential to having a family – education costs, child care and a social safety net that doesn’t really offer support for working women or men taking time off for their children.

Those difficulties are detailed in the new book by journalist Alissa Quart, “Squeezed: Why our families can’t afford America.” Quart’s book began when she and her husband, both freelance journalists, were faced with paying for the care of their first child. She quickly found her own struggles — having a child while not having a steady income, good health care and student debts — were shared by many.

Some of the more remarkable findings in Quart’s book include the trend of private school teachers needing to drive Uber to support themselves on the measly salaries they earn teaching the children of their wealthier neighbors.

Somewhere along the way, America has decided against investing in families (among other social programs) and is at the same time lamenting the decline of the family. Investments in universal pre-K, family leave and doing something about the skyrocketing costs of higher education are more than a step in the right direction. They’re essential first steps in reversing a troubling trend that we need to pay a lot more attention to.

Pete Mazzaccaro