The lack of babies

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything In It: babies, or rather the lack of them.

Now you just heard that pregnancy can be dangerous for some women. But having fewer pregnancies isn’t the solution. That, as you’re about to hear, has dangerous consequences for the whole country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week, concluding the United States is in an official baby bust. It’s been declining for four straight years. The number of babies born in this country last year fell to a 32-year low. Another way to look at this: We have 350 million people, give or take, and last year less than 4 million newborns.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s the lowest level since the United States started keeping track. WORLD Radio correspondent Katie Gaultney joins us now to talk about the causes and effects of the birth recession.

Katie, I could venture a guess about this, but you’ve been following this for awhile. Why fewer babies? What’s behind this?

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: I’m betting your guesses would be right, Mary. On some level, we can just point to the changing culture as one big reason for the decline. People are getting married later, and they’re having fewer kids. Experts say men and women want to establish their careers and be financially stable—pay down debt—before becoming parents. Then again, an increasing number of adults say they’re choosing not to become parents at all, or to have fewer kids than their parents did.

REICHARD: Right. And what about abortion? How does that figure into this trend?

GAULTNEY: Well, CDC data show the rate of abortions is declining. But it’s still undoubtedly a contributing factor. You mentioned that the birth rate report showed just 59 women out of 1,000 gave birth in 2018. That represents women ages 15-44. Well in that same demographic in 2015, the last year the CDC came out with a statistic like that on abortion, 11.8 out of 1,000 women had an abortion.

I mean, I find that shocking. Basically for every five babies born last year, one was aborted. And that abortion figure is likely low, given that not all abortion providers report data to the CDC.

REICHARD: Such a tragedy. But are there other, more institutional reasons contributing to the decline?

GAULTNEY: Sure. Some analysts suggest birth rates wouldn’t continue dropping if we had more policies in place to help young adults struggling with student loan debt and housing costs. Programs like parental leave, preschool expansion, child care subsidies. And you know, experts look at indicators like the economy and politics, and they’ve figured out that birth rates tend to be tied to our feelings about the future. Right now, the U.S. birth rate is even lower than it was in the years following the Great Depression. The peak in birth rates was 2007, right before the recent recession. And with the climate of political turmoil and general dissatisfaction, it seems people are not feeling particularly optimistic.

REICHARD: So Katie, what effects should we expect from a decline four years running?

GAULTNEY: Four years running, yes, but bear in mind that 10 out of the last 11 years have seen a decline. So you could certainly call this a long-term decline. Most of the impact will be seen over time. There would have been about 5.7 million more babies born over the last 10 years if we had maintained a pre-recession level birth rate. I saw one article that said, kind of poignantly, I thought, that that number represents kids who would have filled a lot of kindergarten classrooms.

REICHARD: So we could have a lot of empty schools in the next 10 years. What else?

GAULTNEY: Eventually we can expect labor shortages, which will lead to a greater dependence on immigrants to fill those gaps. Baby boomers are aging and will require more support. So we can also expect a growing need for elder care, with fewer people to step into those roles. There’s a term called the “replacement level” when you’re talking about fertility. Basically, how many babies does a woman need to have in her lifetime to maintain the current population over time? In the U.S., that number is 2.1, but we’ve been below that level since the early 1970s. The more that number falls below the replacement level, the weaker our economy gets, especially as the homegrown workforce decreases and more people retire. And then of course, already-strained programs like Medicare and Social Security suffer as well. Fewer workers means fewer people paying into the system that supports a growing number of retirees.

REICHARD: All of that is perfectly foreseeable, given the numbers.  Leave us with some good news, Katie. Any bright spots in this report?

GAULTNEY: Any hope at all? [laughs] Yeah, I think so. It’s possible that women are just delaying motherhood, rather than choosing not to have kids at all. This year marked the first time the rate of women having babies in their 30s was greater than that of women in their 20s. That correlates with more women getting college degrees. Then again, maternal and fetal risk increases as a woman gets older. Doctors refer to pregnant women age 35 and older as having “advanced maternal age.” More potential for complications. On the flip side, teen pregnancies dropped quite a bit. The birth rate among women aged 15-19 dropped 8 percent. Births to single mothers also dropped. Now you may be wondering, like me, if that actually just means more teenagers are having abortions. But we don’t know that at this point.

REICHARD: Katie Gaultney is a WORLD Radio correspondent based in Dallas. Katie, thanks so much.

GAULTNEY: You’re welcome, Mary.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) This Feb. 16, 2017 file photo shows newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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