The birth rate in the United States increased in 2021 for the first time in seven years, according to a report from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, but experts say the increase doesn't necessarily mean the trend of declining birth rates is over.
According to CDC, around 3.66 million babies were born in 2021, representing a 1% increase from 2020. Since 2014, births in the United States have declined 2% every year and dropped 4% during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 and 2020, the report said.
The fertility rate in the United States, which represents an estimate of the average number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime, also increased slightly in 2021 to 1.66, up from 1.64 in 2020, which was the lowest fertility rate the United States has seen since the government started tracking it in the 1930s.
The birth rate increase occurred across every age group of women 25 and older, CDC found, and continued to decline for teenagers, dropping 6% among those ages 15 to 19.
Meanwhile, among different racial groups, birth rates rose slightly among non-Hispanic white and Hispanic women and dropped among Black, Asian, and American Indian or Alaska Native women.
The report also found that, in 2021, the percentage of premature births hit its highest point since the data became available.
Overall, births are still at historically low levels, peaking at 4.316 million births and a fertility rate of 2.12 in 2007.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College, and Melissa Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, predicted the crisis would lead to between 300,000 and 500,000 fewer births in 2021. However, according to Levine, a rapidly recovering labor market and stimulus funds helped stave off that drop.
Still, Levine noted the "minor blip up still leaves us on a long-term trajectory toward lower births."
Similarly, Beth Jarosz, a demographer and program director at the Population Reference Bureau, said the birth rate drop in 2020 was one of the largest in decades, and the rise in 2021 "doesn't necessarily mean that declining trend is over."
It's possible that either postponed pregnancies or changes in contraceptive access could have affected birth rates in 2021, she said.
"I'm always a little bit skeptical of just one year [of data]. But in this case, I really would need to see what happens in 2022 to try to suggest that that's any kind of a rebound or trend," Jarosz said.
Brady Hamilton, a statistician who co-wrote CDC's report, said the fact that births rose among older women suggests that many women believed they didn't have time to wait for the pandemic to end to have children.
"When you see the decline in births that occurred in 2020, there's this tendency to look at them as births that have been foregone," he said. "These are births that have been postponed."
Polling from Pew Research has had similar findings, suggesting many Americans delayed having children during the first year of the pandemic.
"When it comes to changes in fertility behavior, we're limited," Hamilton said. "That's where you need a survey about what's behind the decision-making process." (Adamy/DeBarros, Wall Street Journal, 5/24; Bettelheim, Axios, 5/24; McPhillips, CNN, 5/24; Kekatos, ABC News, 5/24)
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