Small Families Are Most Americans' Ideal

by Lydia Saad

But young adults fancy larger families

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Earth is getting more crowded by the minute, and that trend is likely to continue well into this century. But according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report, the rate of world population growth is slowing, and by 2050, the average number of children born to women over their lifetimes worldwide will fall below the population replacement rate.

Against this backdrop, a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll updating Americans’ preferences for family size has particular relevance.

Americans’ notion of the ideal number of children for a family to have has been quite stable over the past quarter century. Since 1977, the preponderance of Americans have told Gallup that having one or two children is ideal, with the average number preferred being 2.6. That is precisely the level recorded in a recent Gallup update on this subject.

Today, a slight majority (52%) says having one or two children is best, while 38% say three or more. An additional 1% say the ideal number of children is zero.

Ideal Number of Children
current preferences
Feb. 16-17, 2004

When Gallup first measured preferred family size in 1936, close to two-thirds of Americans (64%) thought that having three or more children was ideal, and 3.6 was the mean ideal family size. Those preferences held steady for three decades, through 1967. However, the next poll, conducted in 1973, recorded a substantial change; the percentage who preferred having three or more children fell to 43% and the mean number of children preferred dropped to 2.8. By 1977, the figures had decreased further, to just 36% favoring three or more children, with the average number of children preferred declining to 2.6.

Ideal Number of Children
1936-2004

These results are an interesting indicator of societal changes. The abrupt drop in preferences for large families around 1970 conforms with other cultural shifts of this period, such as an increasing acceptance of the morality of premarital sex, and an increase in the percentage of women in the workplace.

But preferred family size may also have important implications for population levels. Trends in Americans’ preferences for ideal family size are generally consistent with population statistics over the same time period. Except for the post-World War II "Baby Boom," the trend lines for preferred number of children and the U.S. fertility rate (the average number of children born to women over their lifetimes) are quite parallel.

Trends in U.S. Preferences and Population

Demographers estimate that the population replacement rate for Western countries like the United States is approximately 2.1 births per woman. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this is "the level of fertility at which each successive generation of women produces just enough offspring so that it is matched in number by daughters surviving to reproductive age."

In fact, the U.S. fertility rate has been hovering around 2.1 since 1990. Over the same period, Americans have consistently said that their preferred family size is 2.5 children. Thus, it seems that if preferences for family size stay at the present level, the 2.1 fertility rate should also be maintained.

This doesn’t mean that the U.S. population will remain at roughly 290 million, where it is today. The proportion of women of childbearing age relative to the rest of the population, plus migration of people from other countries to the United States, point to an expansion of the U.S. population to over 400 million by 2050, the Census Bureau estimates. However, if societal preferences for family size change markedly from where they are today, that could alter the projection.

One intriguing finding in the recent poll is that young adults are more likely to prefer larger family sizes than are middle-aged and older adults. Close to half of 18- to 29-year-olds (46%) say that having three or more children is ideal, versus only 36% of those 30-49 and 37% of those 50 and older. In fact, a similar pattern was evident in 2001 and 2002. But historically, from 1941 through 1986, Gallup found young adults either similar in their views to middle-aged and older adults, or less likely to prefer having large families. Whether this will change as young adults age and experience the challenges of raising children for themselves, or whether it reflects a new ethic -- one not influenced by the population explosion fears of the 1970s -- remains to be seen.

Percentage Favoring 3+ Children
by age
Feb. 16-17, 2004

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,006 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 16-17, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

33. What do you think is the ideal number of children for a family to have?

 

 

0

1

2

3

4

5

6 or more

No opinion

Mean

Summary

0-2

3+

                       

2004

1

3

49

26

9

1

2

9

2.6

53

38

2003

1

2

52

26

9

1

1

8

2.5

55

37

2001

1

2

49

27

9

1

1

11

2.6

52

38

1997

2

2

46

29

9

2

2

8

2.6

50

42

1996

2

3

57

21

7

4

0

6

2.4

62

32

1990

3

3

57

18

8

3

0

8

2.4

63

29

1987

1

3

56

22

9

2

1

6

2.6

60

34

1986

2

5

59

17

11

0

0

6

2.5

66

28

1985

2

4

56

21

8

1

2

6

2.5

62

32

1983

3

3

54

21

11

1

2

5

2.6

60

35

1980

3

2

55

20

9

1

2

8

2.5

60

32

1980

1

3

51

21

12

2

2

8

2.7

55

37

1978

2

2

49

23

13

2

1

8

2.6

53

39

1977

2

2

50

22

10

2

2

10

2.6

54

36

1974

1

2

46

22

14

2

3

10

2.8

49

41

1973

1

1

46

23

14

3

3

9

2.8

48

43

1967

0

0

23

30

31

5

4

7

3.4

23

70

1966

0

1

18

27

27

4

3

20

3.3

19

61

1965

0

1

18

28

29

5

3

16

3.4

19

65

1962

0

1

16

24

33

6

7

13

3.3

17

70

1957

1

1

18

34

27

6

4

9

3.6

20

71

1953

0

1

28

30

29

7

5

0

3.3

29

71

1947

0

1

26

26

29

12

0

6

3.4

27

67

1945

0

1

22

28

31

9

9

0

3.3

23

77

1941

0

1

31

27

27

6

8

0

3.3

32

68

1936

0

2

32

32

22

7

3

0

3.6

34

64



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