Ask American adults what they think makes the perfect family size and 45% believe having at least three children is ideal, according to a new Gallup Social Series survey. That’s the highest share supporting large families since 1971 and a big jump from the 38% who said that in 2013, which was itself a jump from 33% in 2003.

While Americans are pretty evenly divided on whether big families or small families are better (45% say three or more kids is ideal, while 47% say one or two kids), the preference for larger families has been trending up, while the preference for small families has dropped some. In 2013 and 2003, respectively, 53% and 55% favored having one or two children.

Gallup noted that Black adults, more religious folks and younger adults favor larger families. And Republicans or Republican-leaning independents were more likely than their more liberal counterparts to favor larger families.

The survey suggests that having two children is still the favorite response at 44%, followed by three children (39%) and four children (12%). Just 3% think one child is ideal, while 2% each favor having no children, five children and six or more children.

Gallup said 1 in 12 Americans say they do not want to have children.

Changing trends

The national polling company started measuring family size preference in 1936 — a year when three children was considered ideal by nearly two-thirds of families. A larger family preference “peaked at 77% in 1945, at the end of World War II and just before the baby boom — yet a minimum of 61% of U.S. adults favored families of at least three children through 1967,” the Gallup report said.

Then the number started dropping and in 1973 a preference for one or two children became the norm.

Gallup notes that in strong economic times, “the gap between preferences for smaller and larger families narrowed.” But a preference for larger families has been inching up.

The report suggested that the precipitous drop in desire for large families between 70% in 1967 to 52% in 1971 might be attributed to the arrival of contraceptive pills, the wave of women entering the labor force and Paul Erlich’s bestseller, “The Population Bomb.”

In a post for the Institute for Family Studies, Melanie Notkin wrote, “Today, we have a similar trend with the rise of anti-natalism where its nihilistic supporters believe the world is too sad a place to bring children into, along with climate change ‘doomerism.’ More practically, the current economy makes family forming more challenging for many young Americans. Then again, those earning less than $40,000 are more likely (51%) to say a larger family is ideal than those who earn $40,000 to $100,000 (43%) and those earning over $100,000 (42%).”

Notkin is the author of “OTHERHOOD: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness” and founder of SAVVY AUNTIE: A Celebration of Modern Aunthood.

Old ways of explaining the birth trends aren’t holding up today, Melissa Kearney, Phillip B. Levine and Luke Pardue wrote in a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Traditionally, people didn’t have babies in lean times, but births climbed when the economy was good.

The birthrate drop has been “steep” since the Great Recession, regardless of upward bounces in the economy. Groups the trio said have had fewer children than before 2007 include those in their early and late 20s, teens, whites, Black and Hispanic women, both those with and those without college degrees and married and unmarried women alike.

“Fertility has been declining basically since the Great Recession,” Emily Harris, senior demographer at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News in late May. Hard economic times often lead to lower births and declines in immigration, she said. “People kind of stop what they’re doing when times are uncertain. What’s interesting is that even after we exited recession and went into more boom time, rather than seeing a rebound in fertility, we actually saw a decline.”

Americans are falling nearly one full child short of the average ideal shown by the Gallup poll, which is 2.7 children. The U.S. fertility rate is just shy of 1.8 births per woman — well below the 2.1 births per woman considered the replacement rate.

In a section of its new report called “Bottom Line,” Gallup reported that “the greater risk of the U.S. population shrinking due to a declining birthrate may stem from young adults waiting much longer than prior generations to start having children rather than from a decreased desire to have children altogether.”

The search for the right partner was a key reason for not having as many children as couples desired in a survey by YouGov for The Wheatley Institute and the Institute for Family Studies in 2021. “That led the list of reasons people weren’t reaching their desired fertility, at 44% — and was even higher among childless adults — followed by 36% who said they couldn’t afford children, and 25% who said lifestyle or career were barriers. Thirteen percent said they had trouble conceiving, while 16% said they were not yet done having children,” the Deseret News reported at the time.

Parenthood is popular

Even so, 9 in 10 U.S. adults are already parents or would like to be, including 69% who are parents, 15% ages 18 to 40 who hope to become parents and 6% who are older than that who say they wish they had had children. Only 8% say they do not intend to have children or wish that they had.

But the poll also notes that actual family size and ideal family size don’t always match.

“Since the Great Recession, Americans have been increasingly likely to see larger families as ideal, but birthrates in the U.S. have been declining. This suggests that while they may see larger families as ideal, other factors are preventing them from implementing this in their own lives,” the report said.

Overall, 31% of U.S. adults are childless, while 42% have had one or two children, 15% have had three and 12% have had five or more.

Men and women are about evenly divided in whether they favor smaller or larger families.

“The babies that are born today are the future schoolchildren, the future adults, the future seniors. A lot of the work I do is around helping governments plan for population change,” Beth Jarosz, program director in U.S. Programs and director for KidsData at the Population Reference Bureau, recently told the Deseret News.

She said the first place the impact is felt is changing demand for schools.

Then labor force challenges arise, including whether there are enough workers to fill jobs and whether entrepreneurship and creativity stagnate. A robust workforce is needed to keep the economy chugging and to support the programs that keep older adults financially secure, like Medicare and Social Security.

But the saddest effect gets back to that question of the ideal family size, said demographer Lyman Stone. He is among experts who believe that older ages at marriage and delaying having children may ultimately mean that women will run out of time to have the number of children they’d like to have.