Driven by the Recession, a Baby Bust Hits the U.S.
Printer-friendly versionPDF version
a a
 
Type Size: Small
The Fiscal Times
January 28, 2011

This is the first piece in a series that will examine the impact of a potential baby dearth in America. The recession is pushing the birth rate down, women are waiting longer to have children and the cost of raising a child is skyrocketing. Fewer babies means fewer young people to support an aging population , threatening already-strained social programs. Has America’s baby bubble burst?

2.1 . That’s how many babies per woman it takes to replace the population. In the U.S., this number was holding steady until 2008, when it fell to 2.08; in 2009 it dropped to 2.01 — the largest dip since the 1970s. The ‘60s brought the baby boom and a prolific 3.7 births per woman, but today we’re facing a baby bust. One of the striking and less-reported trends the Great Recession has brought is a decline in the birth rate, which some experts predict will continue to fall. When it falls over a long period of time — as it has in nearly every other developed country — governments face the dire consequences of having a small working public supporting an aging population — a combination that could topple not only social programs for the elderly, but the entire economy.

America’s population growth is now at its lowest
level in seven decades.

Back in 2007, it was business as usual. The U.S. had the highest birth rate since the baby boom, with 14.3 births per 1,000 people. But in four years of economic slump, that number has fallen over 8 percent. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey reported 14 percent of people in their prime childbearing years put off having a child because of the recession. The 2010 Census found that America’s population growth is now at its lowest level in seven decades, growing 9.7 percent over the past 10 years, down from 13.2 percent from 1990 to 2000, and the lowest since the 7.3 percent during the Great Depression.

Broken down by state , the largest birth rate declines were in states with the greatest job loss and foreclosures: Arizona’s birth rate declined 7 percent, Florida’s by 5 percent and California’s by 4 percent.

Birth Rate by State
StateBirth Rate
Change (%)

2007 - 2008
Per Capita Income Change (%)

2006 - 2007
Per Capita Income Change (%)

2006 - 2007
California-2.8%1.5%-2.1%
Arizona-4.6%-0.1%1.7%
Florida-2.8%-0.5%0.9%
New Hampshire-2.2%1.6%0.1%
Michigan-1.6%0.1%-1.8%
Data: Pew Research Center

The reason? A deep recession that causes financial instability and uncertainty can deter people from having children. “[Births] may fall for couples that experience layoffs, unemployment, or other financial loss, but it also can fall for all couples because of a general sense of economic uncertainty about the future,” says Ronald Lee, a demography and economics professor at University of California, Berkeley.

As a society moves away from farm-based living to
big cities, children go from being an economic
asset, to a burden.

“When the economy gets bad enough,” says Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It, “people can’t even imagine absorbing the direct costs of having a kid, whether they’re employed or not. That’s when birth rates go down.” At the moment, at least, babies are on the back burner, but the question many are asking is, could the Great Recession have kick-started a longer-term baby dearth? Or will having a baby be de rigueur if and when the economy fully recovers?

The Shrinking Workforce
A developing country almost always sees falling birth rates. As a society moves away from farm-based living to big cities, children go from being an economic asset to a burden. Urbanization, education and increased cost of living all contribute to lower birth rates. In the mid-1800s, women had six children on average, well above the 2.1 replacement rate. Though many of them died of childhood diseases that no longer threaten the population, and others lost their lives to war.

Blaire Briody is a contributing editor at The Fiscal Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Publishers Weekly, among others.