healthHealth and Medicine

Birth Rates In The US Are Falling And We're Not Sure Why


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People are having children later – and having fewer of them. That's the basic takeaway of a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this month, an update of one released in May 2018.

You might not find that surprising. After all, the new data simply reinforces a trend that has been documented for a while now. That is, that US fertility (or at least birth rate) is on the decline. Interestingly, this is being seen across the board, from city centers to small rural communities and across all three of the race groups studied (non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Hispanic). 


According to the CDC's definition, "total fertility rate" is an estimation of the number of births that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes calculated by using the age-specific birth rates in any given year. That number has dropped dramatically over the last decade, by 12 percent for women in rural areas, 16 percent in small to medium metro areas, and 18 percent in large metro areas.

Overall fertility rates continue to be higher in rural areas, which has historically been the case but, as the researchers point out, that gap has increased over the last 10 years. In 2007, the fertility rate was 5 percent higher in rural counties than in metro counties. By 2017, that figure had grown to 10 percent for small metro or medium areas and 14 percent for large metro areas. 

So while a woman living in a large city like Chicago or New York might now be expected to have on average 1.712 children in her lifetime, another living in rural Idaho might have 1.95. Compare this to 2007, when women in all three settings were expected to have around 2.1 children over the course of a lifetime. 

This trend for fewer children was paired with a tendency to delay motherhood. The average maternal age at first birth increased by 1.3 years in rural areas (23.2 to 24.5), 1.5 years in small or medium areas (24.3 to 25.8), and 1.8 years in large metro counties (25.9 to 27.7). 


The researchers also broke down fertility rates and average maternal age by non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Hispanic women. (Native American, Asian, and mixed race weren't accounted for.) Among all three groups, there was a downward trend in fertility rate and an upward trend in average maternal age. The largest decline was seen among Hispanic women, though they had the highest rates overall (26 percent in rural areas, 29 percent in small or medium metro areas, and 30 percent in large metro areas). 

So, why the change? It is not exactly clear but there are several theories, from lower sperm counts to terrible maternal leave policy. As for the rise in average maternal age, it could be that women are simply choosing to have kids later so they can spend more time focusing on their career and traveling the world. It's likely to be the result of all three of these factors and more.

What is clear, however, is that this is not a theme unique to the United States. Death rates are surpassing birth rates in Europe (as this map shows), while countries like Japan are seeing their rates plummet – in 2017, fewer than 1 million births meant the entire population fell by more than 300,000.

The good news, for the US at least, is that there is a way to fill the population deficit without enforcing a dystopian-style birthing systemimmigration.


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