VIEWSrnFamily Formation in Americarnby Virginia Deane AbernethyrnParents, some say, are people who use the rhythm methodrnof family planning. One might better say that parents arernoptimists, people who think that the present is good and the futurernprobably better. People who look forward with confidencernoften have an extra child; those who think that their situationrnmay worsen are cautious about increasing family size.rnIn fact, most people want children, but not more than can bernraised well given family standards. W’Tien people believe thatrneconomic prospects are brightening, they marry early and planrnto have children quickly, a phenomenon that I call the fertilityrnopportunity effect. The perception of expanding opportunityrnexplains the various episodes of high fertility in America.rnhi the colonial and frontier periods, for example, the naturalrnwealth of the American continent invited population increase,rnand, indeed, very large families were common. Settlers in thernNew World averaged much higher fertilitv rates—that is, morernchildren per woman — than were usual in the societies fromrnwhich they came. Numerous authors, beginning with AdamrnSmith, attributed the very large family size typical in therncolonies to the seeminglv boundless natural resources that requiredrnhuman labor for transformation into wealth.rnThe transition from high to low fertility followed the frontierrnas it swept westward. Free land vanished, and good land becamernexpensive as isolated homesteads became settlements,rnthen established agricultural communities. Land prices becamerna consideration for families wishing to set up on goodrnfarms. Saving for investment in land became a barrier to earlyrnmarriage and, with the foresight that it would be difficult to buyrnadditional farms for children, was a disincentive to the earlyrncolonial pattern of very large family size. Economist RichardrnVirginia Deane Ahemethy is professor emeritus of psychiatry atrnthe Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and the author ofrnPopulation Politics (Plenum Press).rnEasterlin has shown that denser settlement was linked to higherrnland prices and decreasing numbers of children per family.rntil addition, cycles of prosperity saw a parallel decline or increasernin the fertility rate—with the expected lag time for gestation.rnThis relationship was clear in Concord, Massachusetts,rnan offshoot of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which was settledrnby Puritans in 1630. Lumber and agricultural exports earnedrnConcord’s early colonists the British pounds with which to importrngoods that they could not grow or make for themselves.rnThey needed trade.rnInitially, the bottleneck to trade was the availability of shipping,rnand hulls bound for England depended upon the returnrntrip of ships that brought new colonists. English Puritans temporarilyrnstopped emigrating (between 1642 and 1650) whenrnthe Roman Catholic Stuart king, Charles I, was imprisonedrnand beheaded. Ironically, improvement in the Puritans’ politicalrnfortunes at home brought recession and a birth dearth tornConcord. Later interruptions in trade were caused by a collapsernof demand and prices for raw goods in England. Politicalrnscientist Brian Berry summarizes the relationship betweenrncolonial economic cycles and fertilih’ rates; “These bad timesrnof plummeting commodity prices and falling real incomesrncame in the 1640’s, the 1690’s, the 1740’s and the 1790’s, andrnare clearly identifiable in the Concord birth record.”rnEventually, the American market assumed greater importance,rnand domestic economic cycles began to drive demographicrnadjustments. Late in the 19th century, however, largernflows of immigrants damped the direct impact of the labor marketrnon Concord’s established residents and their fertility rate.rnBy the 19th century, most of the adjustment to poor labor opportunitiesrnin Concord took the form of reduced immigration.rnThese long-term trends toward later marriage and smallerrnfamily size were pimetuated by cycles of higher or lower fertilityrnin response to fluctuations in the economy. Depressions inrnMAY 1999/13rnrnrn