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Population Bust? What's Behind the U.S. Falling Fertility Rates?

Katlyn Joy |12, July 2014


Researchers and analysts are scratching their heads after recent numbers were released regarding the birth rate in the US. The rate began dropping back in 2007, with the economic woes. It has continued to fall, despite recovery in the economy. This is what has experts rather perplexed.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, among women aged 15-44, births in 2013 were at a record low; just 62.9 births per 1000 women. This means the total number of births, 3.96 million, rose just 4000 over the previous year.

People who watch these numbers have anticipated a rebound in rates as the financial crisis has lessened and even been in recovery over the last several years. Instead, the TFR or total fertility rate of 1.86 was the lowest in 27 years. The 1.86 number represents the numbers of children an American woman would have in her lifetime, on average.

For comparison, a TFR of 2.1 is considered optimum, in that number means the birth rate and death rate are where they should be in relation to one another.

Possible Reasons

There must be factors beyond the money crunch many families have felt contributing to these historic lows. Some people have pointed to certain specific trends in fertility such as the big drop in teen pregnancy.

Teen pregnancy rates have virtually plummeted, dropping 57 percent since 1991, and 10 percent just since 2012. Abortion rates incidentally have also fallen for this age group. In fact, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, abortion rates in 2010 were the lowest since the procedure was legalized.

Why the drop? More teens putting off becoming sexually active, having fewer partners and using contraception, are big reasons. Another surprising cause has been the hit MTV show, 16 and Pregnant. In the 18 months after the initial episodes aired, the numbers were tracked and instead of glamorizing teen pregnancy, it appeared to have the opposite effect. Pregnancy rates in the period took a notable dip.

Women are also waiting longer to wed, which affects the fertility rate. When women are delaying marriage, they in general are also delaying starting a family. If a woman puts off having her first baby, the chances of her having another child decrease. This may be because of fertility issues, or some couples are deciding the economy doesn't seem solid enough to build a bigger family.

Women are waiting longer and that likely reflects the higher education levels of women today. They are engaged in developing their futures, with college and career, then getting married, and finally pursuing motherhood. If a woman waits too long, she risks fertility issues and possibly childlessness, unless other options are pursued.

In 2011, the Pew Research Center linked dropping fertility rates to the drop in the birth rate by Mexican immigrant women, which had fallen by 23 percent. The Pew Research Center hypothesized this may be explained by the fact that the economic crisis hit the Latino community harder than other groups in terms of unemployment and poverty rates. The number of children per women, in 1990 was 3 per woman in 1990; it dropped to 2.19 in 2012.

This is seen in the biggest sources of Hispanic immigrants to the US as well. Fertility rates in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatamala have seen big drops in family size. Mexico's child per woman rate fell from 6.7 in 1970 to only 2.2 in 2012.

What happened to all the worries over a population boom? Population has to keep up with death rate, and throughout much of the West and Asia, this isn't happening anymore. A number of countries in Europe have resorted to offering families financial incentives to build bigger families.

In America, Baby Boomers retiring and dying off will cause a big shift in population and if immigrants have fewer children, the teen pregnancy rates stay low and women put off childbearing, the situation could become troublesome. The older generation needs the income boom generated by the younger set. We need to have enough workers to replace all the retirees. We need America to return to the 2 children family ideal in order to keep up.

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