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Behind the falling US birthrate: too much student debt to afford kids?

The record-low birthrate in the US is showing no signs of bouncing back, even with the economy on the mend. Evidence is growing that huge student debt may be deterring people from starting families.

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For instance, America's Social Security program depends on having enough younger people in the workforce to cover benefits for retirees; a shortage of working-age people makes the program unsustainable at existing tax rates. Concern about low birthrates has led some nations to give their citizens financial incentives to have more children. Singapore, for one, now has a "Parenthood Package" that includes paternity leave, subsidies for fertility treatments, and special savings accounts for each child.

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Of course, many factors are at work when it comes to a lower birthrate: delayed marriage, the advent of contraception, education and career options for women, economic stability, and so forth. It's not yet clear how much of a deterrent exorbitant and widespread student debt poses to family formation, because the phenomenon is relatively new.

"There are not a lot of hard numbers yet," says Tamika Butler, director of the California office of the Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy group that has focused on the student debt issue since 2009, conducting studies and making policy recommendations to Washington. A 2012 Rutgers University study, "Chasing the American Dream: Recent College Graduates and the Great Recession," shows that 4 in 10 graduates from a four-year college program said debt has delayed major decisions such as buying a house or starting a family. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that student debt is delaying childbearing.

'We would like to think about children, but ...'

Cassandra Coey graduated from The Ohio State University in 2010 with a degree in sociology. Between private and government loans, she owes at least $85,000. Her field is political consulting, but the lingering effects of the Great Recession have complicated her search for the ideal job. With student loan payments to make, she has taken whatever work is available, from fundraising for an environmental campaign to, more recently, a return to her college job in the food service industry. "I'm not even making $10 an hour," says Ms. Coey from her cellphone, coming off a shift at 10 p.m.

She and her boyfriend of three years have talked about marriage, "but he's really worried about what my debt would do to us," Coey says. "We would like to think about children, but how do children fit into that when you have to pay almost a thousand dollars a month just for the student loans?"

Hu, a recent graduate of Georgetown Law, treasures the idea of having a family, but she and her husband of five years opted to wait until she was out of school.

"Times were not bad back in 2007, but we thought it would not be a good idea for me to be pregnant during law school," she says. "Now, I look back at that decision and think maybe it would have been a better idea because at least when you are in school you don't have loan payments to worry about.... We ought to have two or three kids by now."

Buying a home and settling down, Hu says, are part of an "illusory" dream from the previous generation. How the couple would even begin to pay for their own children's college education is something she can't even think about.

Her situation, Hu adds, is "not unique at all. I am only one of many."

Indeed, during the recession, many freshly minted college graduates, unable to find jobs, instead enrolled in graduate school, acquiring even more student debt. Some individuals owe as much as $250,000.

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