Why the Falling U.S. Birth Rates Are So Troubling

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We’re becoming Europe. At least, that’s what a long line of U.S. birth-rate figures seems to being telling us. And that’s bad news for the future of the country.

New numbers released by the U.S. government on Tuesday show record-low birth rates in 2011: the general fertility rate (63.2 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) was the lowest ever recorded; the birth rate for teenagers ages 15 to 19 declined; birth rates for women ages 20 to 24 hit a record low; and rates for Hispanic and non-Hispanic black women dipped. Some birth rates remained unchanged, like those of women in their late 40s. Only women ages 35 to 39 and 40 to 44 are more likely to have babies now than in the past.

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The data are part of a broader post–financial crash trend. Every year since 2007, when the number of births in the U.S. hit 4.3 million, Americans have brought fewer babies into the world. Much of that has to do with the recession: Americans apparently decided that they couldn’t afford to have as many kids in an unstable economy, even if they were married.

Such declines are typical during economic crises. During the Great Depression, birth rates dropped significantly, and the same thing happened during the stagnation of the 1970s. “We’ve seen this previously throughout the last 100 years,” says Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau. “Fertility rates drop in periods of economic stress.”

It appears that the decline in birth rates has at least begun to slow, likely reflecting the fact that Americans are feeling more confident about their economic future. The birth rate fell by 1% in 2011, as opposed to the 2% and 3% drops in prior years.

Even so, the trend toward fewer births is likely to continue over the long term, mirroring what’s been going on overseas for decades. “I would suspect that fertility rates over the long term would start to resemble those of Europe,” says Mather.

Europe’s birth rates have been declining for decades, especially in its most economically stable country. Germany’s rate — 1.36 children per woman — is the lowest in all of Europe and one of the lowest in the world. There were fewer German births in 2011 than at any other time recorded.

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Even before the euro crisis, experts were sounding the alarm over Europe’s gloomy demographic future. How is the continent supposed to take care of an aging population when its birth rates are pointing toward a shrinking workforce in the decades to come?

The U.S. rate hasn’t fallen to European levels yet. The birth rate of children per woman in the U.S. is about 1.9. But the downward trend will almost certainly force the U.S. to rethink how to financially support the elderly and fund programs like Social Security and Medicare, ongoing economic debates that will take on even more weight as the country ages.

Some experts are more optimistic about the latest figures. While birth rates have been sliding since 2007, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they aren’t worried about a possible demographic time bomb. To keep the population stable, countries need to have a birth rate of about two children per woman, which is close to the current U.S. rate. One CDC official told the Associated Press, “We haven’t seen any studies that show couples want to have fewer children or no children.”

Unfortunately, it may not be a matter of whether families want to have children, but whether they can.

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