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Americans are having fewer babies, and it might have to do with the economy

"We know there's a link between the economy and fertility," says Gretchen Livingston of the Pew Research Center. "But at the same time you know by many measures the economy has recovered and fertility has not." Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Whether it is economic insecurity, changing values, or a young adult population that prioritizes their education over having children, the fact remains that Americans are having fewer babies. Since 2007, when the Great Recession hit, the United States has seen a continued decline in fertility. A recent study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention broke down the numbers by state, showing that North Dakota, for example, had a relatively high fertility rate while the District of Columbia had the lowest.

The Pew Research Center’s Senior Researcher, Gretchen Livingston, spoke to host Sabri Ben-Achour and said that the CDC’s data “kind of fits with this idea that fertility and the economy are linked.” She pointed out that North Dakota has been undergoing an economic boom in recent years, which is a likely contributing factor to its increasing fertility rate. At the same time, Livingston says that experts are somewhat confused about why the thriving economy of recent years hasn’t led to increasing birth rates.

Livingston says while the story could be about a residual, post-recession feeling of economic insecurity, that is more so the case among people with lower incomes, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center recently. Other factors include young adults in America prioritizing their education, which means having children later, or not at all.

Total fertility rates, by state: United States, 2017

There’s a question of whether it’s even necessary to have a growing population to be an economically healthy nation. Some experts say resources are limited, so declining fertility could be a positive trend, others say we need a growing population to have a sufficient labor force to keep up with the economy. We continue to explore this topic in our mini-series on fertility and how it’s linked to the economy. Below is an edited transcript of host Sabri Ben-Achour’s conversation with Livingston. 

Sabri Ben-Achour: So the CDC says the average woman has 1.77 babies down from 1.82 in 2016, 1.84 in 2015. What’s going on. Why is our birth rate declining?

Gretchen Livingston: Well, there are a number of things going on in the near term. We definitely have seen a continued downtick in fertility ever since 2007 when the Great Recession hit. So certainly we know there’s a link between the economy and fertility meaning when the economy is not doing so well fertility doesn’t tend to be very high either. But at the same time you know by many measures the economy has recovered and fertility has not. So a lot of experts are kind of surprised by that.

Ben-Achour: Is there anything to learn by looking at which parts of the country have higher fertility and which parts have lower fertility?

Livingston: So for instance in that recent CDC report, North Dakota had relatively high fertility and to some extent that’s not a surprise because North Dakota has been undergoing an economic boom of sorts in recent years so that kind of fits in with this idea that fertility and the economy are linked. At the same time that same CDC report showed relatively low fertility in the states of New England. And we know that urban areas tend to have lower fertility than rural areas.

Ben-Achour: A New York Times survey from last year suggests that young people are postponing having children until later because of financial concerns.

Livingston: Some people suspect that financial concerns are still a factor. I will say back in 2009 in the height of the recession we actually surveyed people and asked them outright are you postponing having a baby due to the recession and 14 percent said they were of those ages 18 to 34 so we certainly found that in our data and it was particularly common among people with lower incomes. We’ve done some work more recently that suggests that maybe it’s not just about finances. We’ve asked parents if they would like to have more kids. And among those who said they’d like to have more kids, a pretty small share actually said financial reasons were what was keeping them from having more kids. So I think the data is a little mixed on that but certainly there are plenty of people out there who feel like there’s still some feelings of economic insecurity that could be affecting fertility.

Ben-Achour: So it sounds like it’s a little bit of a mystery. Is there any clues to why fertility hasn’t rebounded since the recession?

Livingston: You know some suspect that there continues to be some feeling of financial insecurity among people even though when we look at the broad numbers we see that there has been an economic recovery. There’s also just some long-term trends that really don’t relate to the recession at least not directly that have led to really long-term declines in fertility like the postponement of births across the board.

Ben-Achour: And so why is that?

Livingston: On the one hand we’ve seen huge declines in teen births over the years. And this is a trend that’s been going on for decades and other factors that are contributing include the fact that people in general are getting more education. There’s a lot more people getting college degrees now than was the case several decades ago. And for the most part, people tend to delay childbearing while they’re in school and also delay marriage. On the one hand you know when we hear about fertility and marriage there’s a lot of emphasis on the fact that so many births occur outside of marriage but it’s actually still the case that a married woman is far more likely to have a baby than an unmarried woman.

Ben-Achour: Do we need a growing population to be economically healthy?

Livingston:You know I think experts have varying opinions on this. On the one hand some experts would say you know resources are limited and we’re fine where we are in terms of fertility. At the other end of the spectrum there are experts who feel pretty strongly that we need to have more fertility growth in order to ensure you know a larger labor force moving forward. I mean I think something else that needs to be thrown into this equation though is immigration. You know we’ve been talking only about fertility but immigrants are also coming into this country. And of course they contribute to the labor force as well. So that’s another factor that needs to be considered.

Ben-Achour: What’s the biggest question you have about the fertility rates in the U.S. moving forward?

Livingston: My question is the same as that of many researchers. You know when or is fertility going to rebound to some extent? You know we know some of this decline in fertility that we’ve seen since the recession does relate to people simply postponing births. You know the age of first birth has just increased for a long time and it’s continuing to do so. But are women who are postponing births going to start to catch up and lead to higher fertility in the U.S. or are we in a situation where the fertility is just this is going to be the new normal?

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