Commentary: Number of births in the US lowest in 30 years but nothing alarming there

Commentary: Number of births in the US lowest in 30 years but nothing alarming there

The US's drop in fertility is not a cause for gloom as decline could be attributed to positive factors, says one demographer who studies fertility trends.

Britain's "three-parent baby" fertility treatments
File photo of a mother holding a newborn's hand. (AFP/Philippe Huguen)

SOUTH CAROLINA: The US Centre for Disease Control reported last month that the number of births in the United States is down 2 per cent – “the lowest number in 30 years".

These reports were met with surprise and alarm.

However, this recent decline fits with global trends and isn’t unprecedented in US history. As a demographer who studies fertility trends, what strikes me as anomalous is not the recent drop, but the previous high fertility “bubble".


The US maintained surprisingly high fertility rates for a long time.

After the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s, fertility in the US and other wealthy countries fell during the 1970s. However, US steadily rebounded, even as rates in most other wealthy countries stayed low or fell even lower.

By 1990, there were 2.1 children per woman in the US, compared to 1.4 in Spain and 1.5 in Germany, for example.

This gap between US and other developed countries baffled demographers through the 1990s and early 2000s.

Public policy choices couldn’t explain it. The US maintained its high fertility rate even while being comparatively weak on “pro-fertility” policies like family leave and financial support for parents.

Several factors propped up the fertility rate. The US had a steady flow of immigrants from higher-fertility countries. It also had a persistently high unintended pregnancy rate; a flexible labour market that allowed parents to exit and re-enter the workforce; and a strong, stable economy.

Members of a Syrian refugee family walk with their luggage at Beirut international airport
Members of a Syrian refugee family walk with their luggage at Beirut international airport ahead of their travel to the United States, Lebanon February 8, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)


The recent drop in fertility brings the US more in line with peer countries.

The US dropped to 1.76 children per woman last year. This number is well within the range of similar countries, and even remains toward the top of the pack. Only a few wealthy countries – including France, Australia and Sweden – have higher fertility rates, and differences are small.

But depending on how you measure it, fertility in the US is not at a historic low. By one measure, called the “general fertility rate,” US fertility is indeed the lowest it’s ever been. This is the measure widely cited in media reports.

But, in my view, this measure is flawed, because variations in the age structure of women can artificially inflate or depress it. For example, having a high proportion of women in their late 20s will inflate the rate.

A better measure, without this issue, is total fertility rate. Using this measure, the US rate last year was higher than in 1976 and equal to that of 1978. So, the country has been here before.


It’s normal for fertility rates in wealthy countries to go up and down. People tend to adjust the timing of births to take advantage of a “good” year – such as one when high state benefits are offered – or avoid a “bad” year – such as one with high economic uncertainty.

Spain’s fertility declined from the 1970s to the early 1990s, as women increasingly joined the labour market but husbands didn’t share the load at home.

In Russia, fertility fell steadily following the economic and political shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It later climbed back.

Between the 1990s and early 2000s, Sweden’s fertility fell and then rose, in part due to changes in the timing of births, the economy, and the state’s generous supports for parents.

There are a number of possible explanations for the recent dip in the US. The Global Financial Crisis is important, and its effects linger even as the economy has recovered. 

A Gallup poll indicates that, for the past several years, Americans’ “satisfaction with the way things are going in the US” has remained substantially below levels in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

FILE PHOTO: People walk on Wall St. in front of the NYSE in New York
People walking on Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange. (File photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

In addition, declines in fertility rates have been particularly steep among younger people, who are disproportionately affected by high student loan debt and may find it harder than previous generations to get on their feet economically.

However, if economic conditions improve for these young people, research suggests they are likely to “make up” many of these births later in their lives.

Finally, part of the drop in overall fertility is due to declines in unintended and adolescent birth rates. Such declines have been a public policy goal for decades. So the dip in fertility should be seen as a good thing, not a cause for gloom.


US fertility rates aren’t alarming, yet. But a continued drop could cause problems.

There are at least two scenarios to worry about. The first is a persistently low fertility rate that leads, over time, to a shrinking population. A population with a sustained fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, for example, will quickly contract.

The second is a large, rapid fall in fertility. That eventually creates a lopsided population with more old than young people – making it hard, for example, to sustain policies like social security.

Both of these scenarios could happen, but it’s important to emphasise that the US is not currently experiencing either one. However, it might be wise for the US government to consider implementing stronger pro-family public policies such as paid family leave and subsidised child care.

The US is unlikely to return to the exceptionally high fertility rates enjoyed before the last recession, but the current rate is one that many countries would be thrilled with.

Caroline Sten Hartnett is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of South Carolina. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/nr