Skip to main content

In tough economy, Americans having fewer babies

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 12:27 PM EDT, Wed October 12, 2011
Last year, just over 4 million boys and girls were born in the 50 states.
Last year, just over 4 million boys and girls were born in the 50 states.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new Pew report says America's birth rate plunged after 2007
  • It says the decline in fertility rates correlates to the start of the recession
  • Historically, there's evidence to back up Pew's analysis
  • Baby busts also occurred during the Great Depression and in the 1970s

(CNN) -- 4,316,233.

That's how many babies were born in the United States in 2007, the highest number ever.

But after that, the number dropped. Last year, just over 4 million boys and girls were born in the 50 states.

The likely reason? The economy, of course.

A decline in fertility rates that began in 2008 is closely linked to financial woes that started at the same time, said a new Pew Research Center report issued Wednesday. Changes in personal income, per capita GDP, unemployment rates and claims, and state-level foreclosure rates all had an effect.

In 2007, there were 69.7 babies per 1,000 women of childbearing age. Provisional data for 2010 showed that number had dropped to 64.7.

The actual number of births from 2008 to 2009 rose only in one state, North Dakota, which also posted one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates at 3.1%.

"This does not conclusively prove that the economic changes led to fertility changes," the Pew report said. "However, the timing is consistent with the time it might take people to act upon fertility decisions."

Historically, there's evidence to back up the Pew analysis.

Demographer Carl Haub said baby busts have occurred in other bleak economic eras of U.S. history. During the Great Depression, the fertility rate fell to 76.15. During the oil shock decade of the 1970s, it plunged to 64.99.

In that sense, what's happening now is normal.

"It's almost certainly due to a lack of confidence in the economy," said Haub of the private Washington-based Population Reference Bureau.

Having children, he said, is expensive. You have to feed them, clothe them and send them to day care. And that's hard when you're without a paycheck or booted from your house.

The same kinds of trends affect European nations as well. Fertility rates plunged, for instance, in Eastern Europe when the breakup of the Soviet Union destroyed the local economy. And they are down now, amid the current crisis, Haub said.

"Unemployment is rising and the airwaves flood our living rooms and cars with one bit of scary news after another," Haub wrote in a 2009 report predicting birth rate declines in the current recession. "Bad news travels fast and furiously these days, much more so than in the 1970s and 1930s."

But that's not to say that Americans don't want children anymore, Haub said. They are simply waiting for more prosperous times.

The Pew report said Hispanics, whose employment levels and household wealth were hit hard by the recession, experienced the largest fertility declines of any racial or ethnic group. From 2008 to 2009, birth rates dropped by 5.9% among Hispanic women. For African-American women, rates dropped 2.4%, and they dropped 1.6% among white women.

In 2009, the Hispanic birth rate of 93.3 births per 1000 women was the lowest since 1999. That came after a year when unemployment among Hispanics increased 2.0%.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics have also been the biggest losers in terms of wealth in the recession -- Hispanic households have lost 66% of their median wealth from 2005 to 2009.

Haub said the drop in American birth rates is not significant enough to be alarming -- there's not going to be a shortage of people anytime soon. But the decline could have a significant impact on markets that cater to children and families and also affect the need for teachers or other providers of children's services.

And things don't appear to be changing anytime soon.

"We're probably in for a somewhat longer term depression of the birth rate," Haub said. "The economy has definitely put a damper on it."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT