America’s birth rate has fallen to a 30-year low. The general fertility rate – that’s the rate at which women between the ages of 15 and 44 are having children – has also sunk to a record of just 60 births per 1,000 women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, birth rates for women in their 20s fell by 4 percent in 2017.
Is this a sign of some societal malaise or possibly an indicator that many women are taking more control over their reproductive choices?
“Slight drops in fertility are not necessarily a bad thing,” said Christine Percheski, assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University who studies demographic changes and how they relate to changing patterns of social inequality. “Some of the drop in fertility and birth rate most recently has been among teenagers and most of us would think that a decrease in births to young, unmarried teenagers is not a bad thing.”
In fact, the birth rate for teens fell by 7 percent to a record low of just 18.8 births per 1,000 last year. That figure is for girls and young women ages 15 to 19. That group has seen a dramatic fall in birth rates – down 55 percent in the last 10 years and down 70 percent from a peak in 1991.
“We’ve seen the birth rate falling for other age groups too, but again we don’t know at this moment in time if everyone is having their babies later or if some women will have fewer babies across their lifetime,” Percheski said.
Women in their 40s were the only group to see a higher birth rate in 2017 – up 2 percent from 2016 to 11.6 births per 1,000.
“We know that when women get more education and invest more in their careers they tend to make more money over their lifetimes, so there are good reasons why women tend to postpone having children a few years longer than women did in the past,” she said.
Another factor that may play a role is that more women have access to health care and long-term contraceptives like IUDs – reducing the number of unintended pregnancies.
But economic hardship can also impact the numbers of new births.
“We know that high rates of unemployment are also related to lower fertility or lower birth rates,” Percheski said. “The unemployment rate is not high right now, but I actually have some new research that was published in the New York Times last Sunday which showed that the wealth gap between families with children and senior citizens has increased in the past 25 years. So families with children have not been doing particularly well in recent decades. They lost ground during the recession and they have not made that up in terms of wealth.”
And while declining birth and fertility rates can be an indicator of broader societal problems, Persheski does not believe that is the case in the United States.
“When there are big swings in population size or when fertility rates fall very low – much, much lower than the replacement rate – then I think there are things to be concerned about. But we are not at that point of stress and we are not even close to that point,” she said. “In the U.S. context, if the fertility rate were to go up 10 percent we’d be fine and if it were to go down 10 percent I think we would be fine.”
Percheski joins Phil Ponce to discuss declining birth and fertility rates in the United States.