College-educated women are waiting longer than ever to marry and have children, and having fewer of them than ever before. This is not news.
Some praise this trend as feminist progress and evidence of greater choice and opportunity for women, yet simultaneously wring their hands over increasing fertility struggles for women delaying childbearing into their thirties and general challenges in finding a life partner.
All of this raises the question: Are women putting off the things that studies consistently find they still want—marriage and family—because they want to, or because they feel like they have no choice?
An increasing body of evidence suggests that student debt has become a major inhibitor to women’s sense of choice with regards to when to begin a family. Because recent female graduates earn less money than their male peers, women shoulder a higher burden when it comes to student debt than men. A year after graduating, college-educated women with full-time jobs are twenty percent more likely than their male counterparts to be devoting a significant chunk of their paycheck to student loans, according to a recent study by the American Association of University Women.
And young people in general are increasingly falling under the crush of student debt. A new Pew survey found that of all households ages 40 and under, more than one-third had outstanding student loans. Not surprisingly, those households were more likely to struggle with a range of other forms of debt, such as credit card debt or auto loans, given their restricted income. This study comes not long after different Pew data found that tough financial times, which have exacerbated ballooning student debt woes, have caused 31 percent of millennials to postpone either getting married or having children.
That adds up to some twenty million young men and women delaying marriage and children because they feel they have to, not because they want to. And just a quick scan of the costs of childcare and the slim percent of women who are offered some form of paid leave or childcare benefits through their job make it clear that even if the husband has a steady income and no debt, if the wife has student debt, the choice is often between her income going towards paying off the debt or towards paying for childcare costs. For many, many young couples today, taking on both costs is simply not an option.
That America is a place where so many women are educated and enjoy ever-expanding professional opportunities should be a great source of pride. But that we are increasingly becoming a nation where women, who do not enjoy the luxury of unending fertility and who shoulder the physical and much more of the emotional toll of childbearing, feel as though they must chose between paying for their education and starting a family is a cause for serious concern.
Fortunately, America is a creative and innovative country that can find sensible ways to address this problem. Here are three ideas:
1. Offering some form of student loan forgiveness or aid for married women who opt to have a baby and leave the workforce to recover and care for their child. (Why only married women? Simply put, because we don’t want the law to incentivize unwed motherhood, something we know from a mountain of data dramatically raises the odds that women and children in single-mother households will live in poverty and face other difficult life challenges.) There are different ways this could be done. One is to essentially let the government pay the student loan payments for women who have just had a child and are not earning money through any sort of maternity benefits. This offers women who have a child and do not want to return to work immediately to make the choice without feeling severe financial pressure. Another is to offer partial loan forgiveness once a woman reenters the workforce, adjusted in some way by the cost of childcare the family takes on.
2. Making student loan payments fully tax-deductible for mothers.
3. Basing the amount of government-funded grants and student financial aid a university receives in part on whether that university forgives student debt for mothers who leave the workforce or offers partial forgiveness for women who scale back to part-time. This would be a wonderful way for universities to demonstrate to women that they understand the strains motherhood places on them and to affirm that motherhood is its own noble profession upon which a degree is not “wasted.” There are plenty of universities that could afford to this without financial incentives, but the incentive might give the extra nudge.
And while these tax and financial incentives would need to be paid for, there is no dearth of wasteful government programs that could be redirected towards helping young families, which in turn might give our sagging birthrate a needed bump, something that would help alleviate a coming crisis in entitlement funding.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore recently wrote about putting off his own marriage for financial reasons. He writes about his grandmother asking him when he planned to marry the woman he was so clearly in love with, to which he responded, “When I can afford it.” Her response? “Honey, I married your grandpa in the middle of a Great Depression. We made it work. Nobody can afford to get married. You just marry, and make it work.”
It’s easy enough to respond and say, Those were the days. But they really were different days, because having nothing is different than owing six figures. An empty bank account is scary, but it’s terrifying when you have debt. As a society, we cannot criticize young people for putting off marriage and family while watching them drown in debt they took on to do something we tell them they must do to succeed: get an education. And we especially need to help women get to a place where they feel as though they can actually use their education to start a family, if that is what they want. That will be true progress for women’s choice.