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July 26, 2019

The US birth rate just hit a record low—but you shouldn't panic (yet)

Daily Briefing

    If you were paying attention to news headlines recently, you might have noticed that the U.S. birth rate in 2018 hit its lowest point in 32 years. And while some articles on the subject implied the trend might be worrisome or is evidence that the United States is in a "deepening fertility slump," many experts say there's no reason to panic about U.S. births declining—at least not yet.

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    US birth rate falls for 4th consecutive year

    Preliminary CDC data released earlier this year showed the U.S birth rate fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2018. According to the data, there were 3,788,235 people born in the United States last year, marking a 2% decline from 2017 and the lowest number of U.S. births since 1986. The data show that young women in particular were less likely to give birth. For example, the data showed the birth rate among women in their early 20s fell by 5% from 2017 to 2018, while the birth rate among women in their late 20s fell by 3%.

    While CDC did not give a reason for the decline, some experts speculated that it's tied to lingering effects from the Great Recession. While birth rates typically rebound following a recession, experts said the economic downturn made it more difficult for people who are now in their 20s and 30s to reach certain milestones—such as settling into a career, getting married, or purchasing a home—that often precede having children.

    Experts also noted that the total U.S. fertility rate in 2018—an estimate of the number of babies women have over their lifetimes—reached a record low of 1,728 births per 1,000 women in 2018. According to the New York Times' Liam Stack, "That is below the rate at which a generation can replace itself, a deficit that has occurred every year for the last 10 years and has become almost expected in the United States since 1971."

    The Wall Street Journal's Anthony DeBarros and Janet Adamy write that the decline could have "important implications for the U.S. economy and workforce." That's because, when a country's fertility rate is "too low, countries worry that in the long term they may not have enough healthy, young workers to keep productivity up and the economy humming," Vox's Julia Belluz writes.

    Why you shouldn't panic

    But while reports of declining and record-low birth rates might make it seem like the U.S. population could dwindle, many experts say there's an upside.

    The declining birth rate actually is bringing the United States more in line with other developed countries, such as Canada, England, and Wales, Stack writes. Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley, told Slack, "It is making us more normal, in a sense." And Belluz notes that the "the richest countries have had below-replacement fertility for decades," meaning the United States' low fertility rate might not be a sign of economic turmoil.

    Further, experts posit that the declining birth rate could be tied to an increase in women achieving higher levels of education and working, and therefore delaying or forgoing pregnancy. As Belluz writes, "So while delaying childbearing may mean having fewer kids … it's also a sign of women's advancement and improved conditions, including their participation in the workforce."

    Experts also noted that the data showed fewer teens are getting pregnant, which they say likely is tied to greater access to contraceptives that's helped drive a decline in unintended pregnancy. Johnson-Hanks told Stack, "Some of the decline is a very positive signal that we are doing a better job of addressing unwanted teen pregnancies."

    A need for policy changes?

    That said, if the downward trend does continue and the U.S. fertility rate reaches those of Japan or Italy, then the United States might have a problem, Belluz writes. That's why Belluz argues it's time "for some sober thought about what social programs and policies are needed to address a demographic shift that is well underway."

    For instance, Karen Benjamin Guzzo, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, told the Associated Press that implementing more generous parental leave and child care policies in the United States could help young adults feel better supported to have children.

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