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Birth rates in the US decline to lowest level in 35 years

While birth rates are decreasing in most age groups there is one notable exception: rates for women in their 40s are increasing.
/ Source: TODAY

Birth rates in the United States have dropped for the fifth year in a row, reaching a new low for the past 35 years, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once again, Americans are not having enough babies to replace the existing population.

“These statistics tell you things, like how many children you can expect to have as they enter schools and (as adults) into the workforce,” Brady E. Hamilton, a statistician demographer for the National Center for Health Statistics and an author of the report, told TODAY. “There are a couple of caveats. The statistics are the rates for a period in time, 2019.”

To understand birth rates, Hamilton and his colleagues examined 99% of the birth certificates issued in 2019. Last year, there were 3,745,540 births, 1% less than 2018. The general fertility rate was 58.2 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. While birth records provide a partial picture of population growth, it doesn’t include all aspects, such as immigration or people’s decisions to have children later in life, for example.

“They don't capture hard decisions that postpone birth,” Hamilton said. “There are lots of components when it comes to population change.”

A bright spot: Women in early 40s having more babies

Birth rates decreased in almost every group, but the report finds a notable exception: Women in their early 40s are having more babies. It could be that women in their 20s and 30s will have babies, they’re just waiting.

“What's been happening with women is that there is this propensity to delay childbirth. You can see a rise in the average age at first birth,” Hamilton said.

Christine Whelan, who wasn’t involved in the report, said for the past 20 years the age of first-time mothers has been increasing.

“For women in their 40s, the maternal birth rate is increasing as we are able to harness more fertility treatments and as women are — especially educated, affluent women — are marrying later and having kids later,” the director of the Money, Relationship and Equality Initiative at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told TODAY. “We're beginning to really push the biological limits of this trend.”

Why are people having fewer kids?

Whelan added that decreasing birth rates often reflect a change in norms. In 2018, marriage rates were the lowest they've been since 1900, with 6.5 new marriages per 1,000 people. In addition to delaying or abstaining from marriage, more Americans may now value a smaller family size. But financial constraints also play a role in declining birth rates and Whelan believes some people are still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis.

“We have had economic ups and downs,” she said. “When people are feeling economically concerned there are going to be fewer births.”

The researchers found another interesting trend contributing to fewer babies: Teen birth rates decreased by 5% for females age 15 to 19.

“We’ve seen that decline in teen pregnancy rates over the last decade and that has been a positive trend,” Whelan said. “As a society, we did a very effective job around the dialogue about the challenge of teen pregnancy and birth. We have also increased availability of birth control.”

How could the coronavirus pandemic impact birth rates?

The report looks only at data from last year and doesn’t include any information about how the COVID-19 pandemic might impact birth rates for 2020 and beyond. Whelan suspects that the crisis will lead to even fewer babies.

“When you are worried about infections and illness that is not the time evolutionarily that our bodies say, ‘Hey, great time to have a baby,” she explained. “So we are programmed to worry about procreating during times of severe infection.”

And, there are practical considerations: infertility treatments have been paused and unemployed people are likely worrying about the additional costs of having a baby.

“What we are going to see with the pandemic and the job losses and the huge economic insecurity are people saying, ‘Wow, now is not the time to have a child,’” Whelan said.

Plus, there’s a little too much togetherness.

“We kind of want to kill each other because we're stuck in the house together and that doesn't leave a lot of room for sexy time,” she said.

It will likely take years to understand the effect COVID-19 has on birth rates and the makeup of the American family.

“At least retrospectively we will be able to tell a much clearer picture of the fertility impact of this period,” she said.