MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018.
Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
American birth rates are seen as a key indicator of the demographic health of the nation. The number of children born each year or over a period of time needs to be within a certain range to keep the population the same from generation to generation. This is called “replacement level.”
REICHARD: If the replacement level number gets too high, a country’s resources might be stretched too thin. But if it gets too low, there’s a danger a nation won’t have enough people to care for and replace an aging population. That leads to societal and economic decline.
EICHER: And that’s why demographers are carefully watching the birth rate in the U-S, where the number of women giving birth has been declining for a decade. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 2017 was no different. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our report.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: New CDC data show in 2017 the birth rate fell for nearly every group of women of reproductive age in the U.S.
There were about 3.85 million births in the U.S. last year. That’s a 2 percent drop from 2016, and the lowest number in 30 years. Only a decade ago—in 2007—American women birthed a post-World War II baby boom record of 4.3 million babies.
The general fertility, a rate that measures how many births happen in every 1,000 women, also sank to a record low.
Lyman Stone is an economist who also studies and writes about demographics for the Institute for Family Studies. He says the drop is now a part of what’s become a trend since the 2008 recession.
STONE: We expected to see a decline immediately after the recession, but it has continued through the recovery, which has been a surprise.
So what’s behind the ongoing slump? Multiple factors. Later marriage and the cost of childcare, healthcare and education. Stone says the cost of housing also comes into play.
STONE: High housing costs make it harder for couples to start their own homes or a household. It makes it harder for them to form a long term stable couples to begin with.
But there’s more. Lyman Stone says a large part of the decline is because birth rates among minority women have severely declined in the last decade.
Stone took birth rates from the peak-fertility year of 2007 and applied those numbers to minority women’s birth rates between 2008 and 2016. He wanted an idea of how many babies minority women would have had, if birth rates hadn’t dropped. Stone says there are between 4 and 4 and a half million minority babies missing from the last decade.
STONE: It’s been among Hispanic and American Indian moms particularly, but even African American moms had steeper declines than white moms did.
So far, there’s no one clear reason why minorities are having fewer babies.
STONE: I’ll admit there’s a bit of a mystery about, about what’s going on there.
The stat demographers also look closely at the total fertility rate. That’s a prediction of how many babies an American woman will have in her lifetime based on current data. And you guessed it, that number also dropped.
Last year the total fertility rate was 1.76 births per woman—down 3 percent from the prior year. The ideal replacement rate is 2.1 births per woman.
Some experts think the latest numbers illustrate a delay—not necessarily a decline. Donna Strobino, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says she believes women in their 20s and 30s will still end up having more babies. They are just waiting.
STRABINO: So what’s happening then is we’re seeing this shift toward older child bearing, so during this time period we’re actually going to see an overall decline in the general fertility rate, which is what is being reported as going down.
Less concerned demographers cite numerous developed countries as reason to breathe a sigh of relief. The U.S. isn’t anywhere near the low birth rates in countries like Italy, Bulgaria, Japan and South Korea—where there are only 8 to 10 births for every 1,000 women.
But Lyman Stone says that’s not the proper measuring stick.
STONE: It’s true that we’re miles ahead compared to say eastern Europe or East Asia. Those countries have rapidly declining populations. Bulgaria is going to lose half of its population within the next few decades. I don’t see that as really a comparison I want to make. That’s the route of massive de-population of so many towns and counties that is abandoned schools that is communities permanently left behind. I’m not sanguine about this.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.