The declining American birth rate


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 8th of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up, marriage, in the United States. 2018 is now in the books, and the year saw a further decline in matrimony.

Here to tell us how much and what it means is Kiley Crossland. She writes on marriage and sexuality for WORLD Digital.

Kiley, let’s start with the basics. What is the status of marriage in the United States today?

KILEY CROSSLAND, REPORTER: Well, Megan, the average age of first marriage is steadily climbing, so recent census data has it at almost age 28 for women and almost 30 for men. And, not surprisingly then, the marriage rate is dropping. So about 50 percent of American adults today are married. That, compared to more than 70 percent in 1960.

BASHAM: Wow, that is quite a drop-off.

CROSSLAND: Yeah.

BASHAM: So what we’re getting then is that Americans are marrying later and they’re marrying less often. Well, what does that do as far as having children?

CROSSLAND: Yeah, the birth rate is dropping as well. It dropped again in 2017, actually hitting a 30-year low. And what’s interesting to know is this last year for the first time the birth rate declined for women in their teens and their 20s and in their 30s, so the only age bracket where birth rates increased last year was women in their early 40s.

Another stat that demographers talk about that’s kind of interesting to note is the total fertility rate. So that dropped last year as well to 1.76 births in a lifetime. And the replacement level is 2.1. So, the U.S. has spent most of the last 45 years below replacement-level fertility. And it’s made an especially big drop in the last decade.

BASHAM: And what would you say are the links between these two factors.

CROSSLAND: Well, even though the U.S. has high rates of out-of-wedlock births, married women still have more children than unmarried women. So rates of unmarried births are also on the decline and it’s important to note that’s due more to long-acting contraceptives and the morning after pill, not really people wanting to wait until marriage to have sex.

But all this means is that as people have postponed marriage, they’ve also postponed childbirth. And some people might argue that birth rates are lower because women are happy having fewer children. But research actually tells another story. The ideal and intended fertility rate—so basically the number of children women report they intend to have or would ideally have—both are way higher than the actual fertility rate and well above replacement level. So women want more kids, they just aren’t having them.

BASHAM: You know, that’s certainly been the story that I’ve heard from women that I speak to. So if they know they want more children, why do you think that they are not arranging their lives in such a way as to have them?

CROSSLAND: Yeah, I think honestly the truth is people don’t completely know. A few factors they’re talking about: one is that couples are having less sex, likely due to pornography use, to cell phones, personal devices, just kind of lack of face-to-face interaction today. Women are also working more. Childcare costs are higher. But one important thing is that women are starting to have children later in life and that definitely has something to do with dropping fertility rates. And although the fertility industry wants women to think that it has all the answers, fertility treatments are expensive and not actually that successful on the whole.

BASHAM: Well, you know, obviously this has a lot of impact on personal, micro-stories, but what does it mean at a macro level for the United States?

CROSSLAND: Well, put simply: our society is aging. So, we’re moving towards more and more elderly and fewer and fewer people in the workforce. People think we can make up for lower birth rates with immigration and that has been partially true in recent history, but immigration is slowing down and fertility rates among immigrants are actually also falling. 

BASHAM: So what are the risks of what some would call a looming demographic crisis?

CROSSLAND: Yeah, experts point to a few main issues. So, one is that economic growth’s going to recede. The market will be more hostile, creating more and more pressure for productivity. It’s also likely that we will not be able to meet Social Security and Medicaid obligations down the road, so the U.S. will have to take on more debt or tax citizens more. And then there’s also some looming social problems as a shrinking younger population struggles to care for an expanding elderly population.

BASHAM: What kind of solutions are being proposed, or are there even any solutions?

CROSSLAND: Yeah. Well, popular solutions are ineffective. I mean, that’s one of the problems is family leave policies, universal healthcare, financial incentives for having kids, lots of countries have tried all of these and they have so far had little to no effect on fertility. So in many ways, experts say this is really a cultural crisis. For things to turn around, Americans really need to get and stay married and then decide to do something that is often joyful but self-sacrificing, which is have more kids.

BASHAM: Which is funny because, you know, at the end of the day there are Biblical solutions to all these issues, but we as a society don’t really want to consider those.

CROSSLAND: Indeed.

BASHAM: Well, thank you so much Kiley.

CROSSLAND: Thanks, Megan.


(Photo/iStock.com, VacharapongW)

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