Compared to many, Carrie Dottellis and her husband are well-off. The 36-year-old is a self-employed bookkeeper and business manager with seven clients, including a yoga studio and a law firm. Her 26-year-old husband, Ryan Palmer, bartends at a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C., where they live in an affluent neighborhood, The Palisades. Together they clear $100,000 annually, which makes them at least middle class -- an August Pew Research Center report defined middle-income households as those with three residents and earnings between $39,000 and $118,000 annually.
But that $100,000-plus never has a chance to accumulate in the couple’s bank account. They spend $1,800 per month, plus utilities, to rent an 800-square-foot duplex. Dottellis has $30,000 in undergraduate loans to pay off; her husband has $120,000, plus the cost of the online classes he’s taking to become a teacher, which they are covering in cash. Combined, they have nearly $15,000 in credit card debt.
"We're not saving," Dottellis told The Huffington Post. "It's all going towards debt and school."
Debt and school, but not children. Dottellis and her husband have decided that with their debts, they do not have the money to live the kind of life they want to live, in the city they love, and juggle the cost of diapers, day care and eventually college. She loves kids, Dottellis said, and she is an adored godmother and aunt. But Dottellis has decided she cannot afford her own.
"What if my child had special needs and I couldn't send them to a private school? How will my child pay for college when my husband has over 120K in student loans and I have 30K? How could I afford child care?" she asked.
"Supposedly this maternal instinct should be more overwhelming than logic," Dottellis said. "It's not for me."
Officially, the Great Recession is over, but its effects continue to guide many women’s decisions about when they will have kids, or if they ever will. The U.S. fertility rate, or the annual number of births to women in a specific age group, has plunged from an all-time high in 2007 of nearly 70 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, to 66.7 per 1,000 in 2009, the last year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has final data. Provisional figures show that rates have continued to fall, hitting 63.4 per 1,000 women last year.
"This coincides with the decline in the U.S. economy and the entry point to the Great Recession," said Jennifer Hunter, an assistant professor of family sciences at the University of Kentucky. "A logical assertion is that during periods of economic uncertainty, couples may choose to delay childbirth due to an already strained family budget [and] limited job security."
Looking at state-level data lends further credence to that view. According to Pew, areas with the smallest economic declines had the smallest dips in fertility. For example, in 2008 North Dakota had one of the U.S.’ lowest unemployment rates -- just over 3 percent compared to 5.8 percent nationwide -- and it was the only state to see even a small increase in fertility. Conversely, Nevada and Arizona, which were hit hard in the downturn, had some of the biggest fertility declines.
"No matter how we looked at it, in almost every single case, we saw a strong association," said Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher at the Pew Hispanic Center and an author of the study.
Many economists have debated whether the economic changes over the past few years are solely responsible for changes in fertility during the same period. Access to contraception and public policy may have played a role in recent declines, along with broader shifts toward postponing marriage and childbirth. Since the 1970s, the average age at first birth among women in the U.S. has gone from 21 to 25.
"Many women have chosen to delay childbearing for a variety of reasons including advancement in [fertility treatment] and the pursuit of education and an established career," said Hunter, of the University of Kentucky. "This shift within family timing can make it difficult to determine the percent of decline in birth rates that are associated with the economy."
But a significant percentage of men and women in their prime baby-making years indicate that the economy has directly influenced when they will have those babies. A recent survey of more than 800 18- to 34-year-olds -- a group hit hard by the economic downturn -- found that approximately one in five recently delayed having kids because of the economic recession.
"Because they feel uncertain or uncomfortable with their own economic status, young adults are now postponing marriage and childbearing in unprecedented numbers," said a July report from Demographic Intelligence, which provides fertility and demographic forecasts to manufacturers, hospitals, drug companies and investment companies. The report estimated that more than one million babies have been "postponed or forgone" since the recession began.
Susanne Stefani, 31, a high school teacher in Oregon, has one child but is putting off more in the wake of the recession. She has a 5-and-a-half month-old baby with her husband, a PE teacher who lost his job last June and looked for work for several months before finding another job. Stefani said she would like to try for another baby next summer, but the couple's paychecks have been slashed because of mandatory furloughs. Typically, they both make around $45,000 before taxes, but they now make about $360 less per month. They plan to be paying down their two master’s degrees for the next decade and have more debt on the 900-square-foot home they own than the current market value.
“It bleeds into every aspect," Stefani said of the pay cut. "We downsized to one car. We were debating if we should get a second vehicle, but how we could carry the kid, and the dog, and the gas mileage, and another car payment? How long could we do that? How could we do that if we carry another kid?"
They plan to wait, at least until they have a better sense of what the furlough situation is through the next year. It's not an easy thing for Stefani to do.
"I debate with myself whether or not this should even be a conversation, or whether we should just find a way to make it work," she said. "I'm going to be 32 this year. I don't feel like I have a ton of time to wait.”
The question now is whether those who've delayed conceiving due to lean financial times will put off kids permanently or if, as the economy rebounds, fertility will as well. If more women wait to have a first child, will they simply age out of having a second or a third? A woman's chance of getting pregnant begins to decline in her 30s, and fertility treatment is expensive. (The average price tag on a single cycle of in vitro fertilization is nearly $12,500.)
"This recession is deeper and longer, so its effects are going to be hard to generalize by looking at previous periods," said Melissa Kearney, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland, comparing the 2008 crash to past downturns. "I'd say in 10 years, we'll know if birth rates have rebounded or not."
"The younger generation was hit very hard," echoed Hunter. "They have lots of student loan debt, high unemployment rates. Now they're trying to wade themselves out of credit card debt. I really feel like there's a compounding number of factors that have impacted this age group of women."
Meanwhile, having children is more expensive than ever. A middle income family in the U.S. can expect to spend $235,000 raising a child from birth to age 17, according to a 2011 government report (approximately $295,000 when expected inflation costs were factored in). That's up by nearly 25 percent from 1960, when the USDA began tracking child-rearing costs, and up by 3.5 percent from 2010. It's also enough to make some women, especially those hit hardest by the recession, feel they've been priced out of having kids -– for good.
Caitlin Jeffrey, 27, and her husband have a 4-year-old old daughter and a son on the way, and they were hoping to have another. After dealing with underemployment and contract jobs during the recession, they’re both employed full-time -- she at a recruiting company, he in IT at a building materials company. Together, they make around $80,000 per year, much of which goes to paying off the $68,000 they have in undergraduate loans and $7,000 to $10,000 in credit card debts. Plus, there's the $1,110 a month they pay to live in their two-bedroom townhouse in Salem, Ore., and $400 a month they spend on daycare for their daughter, who goes four days a week from 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 at night.
Jeffrey's job doesn’t have maternity leave, so they've scrimped to put together enough money for her to take eight weeks off. After their son is born, they'll have hit their insurance deductible for the year. At that point, her husband is going to get a vasectomy, so they won’t have to pay out of pocket later.
"I wanted to have three children," Jeffrey said. "In this economy, where we could lose our jobs, get a pay cut, and utility, gas, grocery and medical costs increase almost daily, it would just be too much of a risk for us to have that third child."
"You need to make sacrifices to get by," she said. "Our sacrifice is baby number three."
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America Sept. 5 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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