It was no surprise when fertility dropped following the Great Recession. In the developed world, there’s a pretty consistent relationship between the economy and childbearing: The two rise and fall together.
Almost a decade later, though, with unemployment heading toward 4 percent, we’re still waiting for births to come back up. The latest evidence comes from the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, which reports that births will fall 2.8 percent this year, with the total fertility rate declining to 1.77 children per woman. (Full disclosure: Brad Wilcox, a co-founder of Demographic Intelligence, publishes my writing in his role at the Institute for Family Studies.)
The “replacement rate” is generally considered to be 2.1 children per woman, and until recently the U.S. could pride itself on staying around that number as many other developed countries slid below it. Those days increasingly appear to be over. And a society with fewer young people is a society with less innovation, less economic activity, and more stress on old-age programs.
What’s going on? Two big contributors are a drop in unintended pregnancy and the fact that Americans are delaying marriage. In theory, these trends could mean that people have babies later instead of not having them at all. But so far, the uptick in childbearing among older women is nowhere near big enough to offset the fall among the young.
Here is a simple breakdown of birth rates by age from 2007 through 2015. The former year is when the CDC last changed systems for tallying births, and provisional estimates suggest the patterns have continued into 2016 and this year as well.
The decline in teen births is to be celebrated. But two of America’s highest-fertility groups — women in their early and late 20s — are having fewer children than they used to, and there’s hardly any upward movement among older women to compensate. Though this could change in the coming years, these trends have been going on long enough that they’re highly troubling.
There’s a severe racial and ethnic skew as well. Non-Hispanic whites have seen only gentle changes in their total fertility rate going back to 1990. African Americans and Hispanics saw far more abrupt declines since the recession, bringing them much closer to the lower rate of whites. The decline among Hispanics was perhaps to be expected, eventually, as a result of assimilation, but the recession seems to have triggered an abrupt, dramatic change.
As far as explanations go, a big one is almost certainly a decline in unintended pregnancy. The unintended-pregnancy rate fell from 54 to 45 per 1,000 women age 15–44 between 2008 and 2011, while the percentage of unintended pregnancies that ended in abortion ticked up from 40 to 42 percent. Crude back-of-the-envelope math says this translates to a drop in the overall birth rate of about six per 1,000, which is roughly what we saw during those years. These precise statistics don’t seem to be available for years past 2011, though the overall abortion rate declined another 14 percent between 2011 and 2014, which suggests unintended pregnancies in general continued falling, and the proportion of births resulting from unintended pregnancies fell from 37 percent in the 2006–2010 period to about 34 percent in 2011–2015.
Why would unintended pregnancy fall? One reason is that people are having less sex nowadays, possibly thanks to the way smartphones discourage actual human contact. Another is the increasing popularity of more effective forms of contraception.
More than half of unintended pregnancies are “mistimed” rather than “unwanted,” suggesting that when unintended pregnancy declines, women will largely make up for it later in life. But again, we’re still waiting on that to actually happen.
Shifts in marriage patterns also matter, as married people unsurprisingly have higher fertility rates than single people. Two years ago, with data running from 2007 to 2012, researchers at the Urban Institute statistically “decomposed” the cratering fertility of women in their 20s into three categories: falling fertility among married women, falling fertility among unmarried women, and changes in the percentage of women who are married. Falling fertility among unmarried women was the dominant factor for African Americans (three-quarters of their total decline) and Hispanics (almost two-thirds), but for whites, 81 percent of the change was attributable to fewer women being married.
Is there anything we can do about our birth dearth? Increasing the child tax credit, as the Senate’s tax plan would, might help a little. But as the economist Lyman Stone explained in September, while such policies raise fertility in the short run, they seem to do so mainly by encouraging women to have children sooner that they would have had later anyway. Boosting long-term fertility is far more difficult.
If people don’t want to have children, the government is unlikely to convince very many of them otherwise. And it’s starting to look like Americans don’t want enough kids to hit the replacement rate.