Economy's role in low U.S. birth rates

A two-week-old baby boy finds his feet in his new world.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: The nation's birth rate dropped last year
for a second year in a row. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. birth rate in 2009 was at its lowest level in a century. Experts say the economy has a lot to do with that. People just not wanting to start families with so much uncertainty. Dr. Megan Sweeney is a sociologist at UCLA in California, and she's here to talk about it. Good morning.

DR. MEGAN SWEENEY: No problem. Happy to be here.

CHIOTAKIS: In what ways does the economy dictate whether people have children?

SWEENEY: First of all, I guess I'd say back up and say that it's difficult to know exactly what's causing the change in birth rates at any given point and time. If you look at historically over a long time period, birth rates tend to dip up or dip down and it's difficult to know for sure that the economy is causing these changes. That said, there are a lot of reasons to think that they could be contributing factors. Children are expensive to raise, I have one myself, I know that's true. They also require care and so often you'll have at least one of the parents out of the labor market for a period of time taking care of the child. In periods of economic instability, having two earners in the labor market can be a nice cushion, so that can be one of the reasons that people might choose to delay a birth.

CHIOTAKIS: What are some of the hazards of lower birth rates?

SWEENEY: Well I think we care about birth rates because -- all things equal -- families having fewer children contributes to an aging population and a possible shortage of what demographers consider the all-important trifecta of workers, warriors and consumers. And there's probably some sense out there that people should be able to have the number of children they want to have, particularly if they're willing and able to work to support them.

CHIOTAKIS: Have we seen this before? This kind of drop?

SWEENEY: Yeah, so actually if you look historically in the United States, there is a series of drops in the birth rate that coincide with recessionary periods. So the most dramatic one, obviously, is the Great Depression of the 1930s -- fertility was low then. And then also we saw, for example, in the early 1970s.

CHIOTAKIS: I can remember 10, 20 years ago European countries were concerned about birth rates there, trying to get people to have kids again. Is this really a concern for our country?

SWEENEY: Yeah, there's actually many European countries -- Spain, Italy, France -- that have been very concerned about their low fertility and have been trying to come up with ways to encourage the members of their population to increase fertility. Of course, across all countries, the size of a population and its rate of growth depends not just on birth rates, but also on factors such as immigration patterns and that's really important to keep in mind.

CHIOTAKIS: Dr. Megan Sweeney, associate professor of sociology at UCLA, thanks for being with us.

SWEENEY: Thanks so much.

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