The American birth rate has dropped to a record low that hasn’t been seen in the last 35 years. The culprit?
Many Americans are worried that they can’t afford to have children, so they aren’t trying to at all, or they’re delaying parenthood to a time in the future when it might make more sense for them.
A report documenting the surprising drop was published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2020, but it’s just now beginning to gain serious traction. Brady E. Hamilton, the statistician demographer who wrote the report, explained that the results offer a few bits of insight.
“These statistics tell you things, like how many children you can expect to have as they enter schools and (as adults) into the workforce. There are a couple of caveats. The statistics are the rates for a period in time, 2019.”
In other words, this report about the declining birth rate in the United States is based on births that were recorded in the entire country last year.
The team studied 99% of the birth certificates that were issued in the United States in 2019. They concluded that the years saw 3,745,540 births across the nation, which is 1% lower than the country experienced in 2018. That 1% doesn’t feel like a big drop, but it’s actually pretty notable.
Brady also explained that the report is helpful because it offers data about births in the United States, but it can’t include the whole picture. The report doesn’t include the fact that plenty of people may be delaying having children because they want to be older when they become parents. Brady added, “They don’t capture hard decisions that postpone birth. There are lots of components when it comes to population change.”
However, it’s been widely noted that many people are delaying parenthood because they aren’t sure they can afford to have kids. That’s a really tough spot to be in. It’s one thing to know you don’t want to have children and to be happy with that decision, but it’s another to feel like the choice to not have children has been forced on you.
The United States isn’t alone when it comes to declining birth rates. The UK is also experiencing a similar fall. The Guardian‘s Barbara Ellen wrote, “There are similar drops elsewhere, including the UK in 2018, with the Office for National Statistics reporting a fall of 3.2% from 2017, down nearly 10% from 2012. In particular, millennial Britons appeared to be indefinitely deferring children because of practical considerations such as insecure work, low wages and unaffordable housing.”
Barbara also noted that this drop is startling because “it’s about how, increasingly, one factor (economics) is limiting personal freedoms, stopping people making choices they want to make.”
Another potential pitfall that could happen as a result of delaying motherhood is that women may find they have a lot more trouble conceiving later in life. While plenty of women are able to have children into their 30s and 40s, there are also tons of women who struggle with infertility when they try to have children later.
The trend in declining birth rate also seems to be happening around the world. While the global birth rate is still above the rate of replacement, the rate has been falling since the 1960s. There are a lot of ways to discuss this sensitive issue, and some publications tend to look at it from the vantage point that more humans on the planet = more workers for companies.
For example, Bloomberg BusinessWeek described the declining birth rate as a “fertility crash” and said, “Population growth is vital for the world economy. It means more workers to build homes and produce goods, more consumers to buy things and spark innovation, and more citizens to pay taxes and attract trade.”
A study published annually by The Lancet has documented worldwide birth rate trends since 1950. When the study began, none of the countries included had a declining birth rate.
The BBC noted, “In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime. The fertility rate all but halved to 2.4 children per woman by last year. But that masks huge variation between nations. The fertility rate in Niger, west Africa, is 7.1, but in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus women are having one child, on average. In the UK, the rate is 1.7, similar to most Western European countries.”
The BBC also said, “Whenever a country’s rate drops below approximately 2.1 then populations will eventually start to shrink (this ‘baby bust’ figure is significantly higher in countries which have high rates of death in childhood).”
The 2.1 number is what is considered the “rate of replacement.”
Dr. Christopher Murray, who is the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said, “We’ve reached this watershed where half of countries have fertility rates below the replacement level, so if nothing happens the populations will decline in those countries. It’s a remarkable transition.”
The declining birth rate isn’t only due to people choosing to skip or delay parenthood. There are also more people who are choosing to have only one child. As Rachel Jacobs explained, “I know now that we can survive on what we earn as a family and still go on holiday every year. If we had more than one child we couldn’t go on holiday. We’d rather give our daughter the best of everything than have multiple children that we can just about feed and clothe.”
Ideally, a person should be able to decide whether or not they have a child or children all on their own, without having to consider failing financial systems around the world, political events, and health crises. Unfortunately, that may not be the world we live in any longer.