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Birth rates in America are declining, leading to one of the lowest rates of population growth on record, soon to become the lowest ever. This will likely have far-reaching negative economic consequences. Furthermore, the trend is shared with many industrialized nations and is observed across geographic areas and ethnic groups in the United States, including immigrant women and previously high-fertility states such as Utah and Hawaii.
This decline is led by falling birth rates for women under 30, but in recent years, even women in their 30s have seen falling birth rates. These declines will almost certainly result in millennial women ultimately having fewer children than previous generations had.
Most of these changes in age-specific birth rates, however, can be attributed to changing marital patterns. Controlling for marital status, fertility in the United States has been roughly stable for the past decade and a half. Most changes in marital status, in turn, can be attributed to the increasing delay in young people getting married. In other words, declining fertility is really about delayed marriage.
This trend cannot be reversed with “technological” or “technocratic” solutions. Even significant improvements in reproductive technology would be insufficient to boost fertility to replacement levels, and even significant restrictions of abortion or contraceptives would only modestly alter birth rates. Known environmental factors affecting fertility, such as lead exposure, should be addressed, but even if addressed, they would alter birth rates only modestly.
Declining fertility also cannot be reversed by a campaign to alter Americans’ ideals or desires for children. Americans already report high desired fertility, and, indeed, fertility desires are already naturally rising. Americans want to have more children than they are actually having, even among young women.
The problem, then, is not about Americans not valuing childbearing, but about barriers to childbearing (and, implicitly, barriers to marriage and independent family formation). These barriers are numerous:
Some of these barriers, such as student loan burdens or housing costs, may be readily addressed through various policy changes. Other barriers are more difficult to surmount, such as societal expectations about parenting styles or market norms about years of education required for work. Young families today face a sufficiently wide range of challenges to childbearing, and policy responses are likely to be sufficiently anemic, that a major recovery in fertility seems unlikely. Rather, fertility will likely remain below the historic average until the next recession, when it will plummet even lower.
Around the country, maternity wards are seeing less demand for their services, churches are seeing fewer babies brought in for baptism, and toy stores are struggling to stay in business. Fewer babies are being born in absolute terms and especially in terms of the national birth rate. Depending on how it is measured, birth rates are either at their lowest point in history or approaching it quickly. What is causing this decline? Is it secularism? Economic demoralization? The decline of the family? High housing costs?
Explanations for the ongoing baby bust are as numerous as they are panicky. And indeed, figuring out the cause of the decline, and hopefully how to prevent it, is a vital question for policymakers and the nation on the whole. Lower birth rates could mean slower economic growth, insolvent public obligations, and a growing culture of intergenerational despair. Luckily, there is a large amount of research on fertility, so the causes and consequence of the baby bust can be teased out and analyzed.
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