Are Low Birth Rates a Milestone or a Tipping Point?

09/01/2010 09:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Seems like only 2009 that everyone was wondering why birth rates were rising.

"Forget the Dow and the GDP. Here's the latest economic indicator: The U.S. birth rate has fallen to its lowest level in at least a century as many people apparently decided they couldn't afford more mouths to feed." In this opening, AP's Marilynn Marchione is going too far.

Still, birth rates have fallen for two straight years. And the number of children born, per 1,000 people in the population, reached it's lowest level ever recorded in the U.S. in 2009:

Source: My graph from various sources, including most recently this from NCHS.

So how could it be that less than two years ago I was asking, "Why Are American Women Having More Children?"

For one thing, that "birth rate" -- births per 1,000 population -- is strongly affected by what's going on among non-childbearing people, especially their recent practice of living longer, which weighs down the denominator of that rate, so to speak.

If you are interested in the childbearing decisions people make, and how those decisions are affected by the recession, it's better to look at what is often called the "fertility rate," which is the number of births for every 1,000 women in the ages 15-44. By that measure, we've still had two straight years of decline -- which could be due to the recession -- but the rate remains higher than it was through most of the 1990s.

So my question about America's high fertility is still germane. In fact, by an even more exact measure -- the "total fertility rate," which estimates how many children each woman will bear in her lifetime -- the U.S. has just about the highest fertility in the rich world, at 2.1.

Source: My chart from Population Reference Bureau data.

The explanations I preferred in 2009 may still apply: (a) immigration of healthy young go-getters from higher-fertility places; (b) the new math for some middle-class parents, by which three is the new two; (c) a rebound in teen birth rates; (d) rising birth rates among single women, and; (e) neo-traditionalist pro-natalism, which is part of the stalled progress toward gender equality.


So, is it true that the recession has changed the birth calculus, raising the specter of "more mouths to feed"? That AP article cited evidence that economics were crimping family expansion plans, especially among those who are economically insecure, and quoted the highly expert Andrew Cherlin, pursuing that logic:

When the economy is bad and people are uncomfortable about their financial future, they tend to postpone having children. We saw that in the Great Depression the 1930s and we're seeing that in the Great Recession today.

As early as January 2009, Carl Haub at the Population Reference Bureau raised the possibility that fertility would fall in a serious recession. And Heather Hopkins at Hitwise tracked baby term searches on the Internet through early 2009, finding evidence of declining interest in "baby names," "pregnancy," and "maternity clothes."

A close look at the monthly fertility trends (made possible for me by my colleague Yong Cai) -- here smoothed with a 12-month moving average -- shows a drop starting in mid-2008, as well as a drop in late-2000 or so, at the start of the last recession. Oddly, in both of those cases the drop appears a little too early, especially when one considers that births usually occur at least 6 months after someone decides to feed another mouth.

To look at that timing more closely, here is the same data, but charted as 12-month change (e.g., the difference between January 2009 and January 2008. This looks like strong evidence that birth rates are lower during the last two recessions, but still a little early -- before the rapid rise in unemployment, for example.

To look for evidence that people are doing less baby planning, I did an updated Google search trend. Averaging the relative frequency of searches for "baby names," "maternity clothes," and "baby shower," -- and again taking the 12-month change -- it looks like a drop occurs in early- to mid-2007, and continues to the present (those few positive months in 2009 are 12-month changes from months that were negative, so the whole trend is downward after 2007).

Source: My analysis of Google search trends. You can do your own, and read about the data, here.

Since births take a while from decision to mouth-feeding, and then even longer for the data to come out, it's hard to use them as a leading economic indicator. But this Google thing has potential. Anyways...

Milestone, or tipping point?

Reaching a data point such as the lowest-birth-rate-ever is a milestone. It's not a tipping point unless it leads to accelerating change in the same direction. Sure, a recession might produce delayed fertility, and some births foregone as a result (as well as more divorces and child abuse). But invoking the Great Depression is serious -- just look at the chunk taken out of the fertility trend above.

Could this be sewius? I could see an argument to make that prediction. If you put together busted real estate values and increasing education costs, collapsing state services increasing insecurity, and tightened access to credit, then the resulting "era of thrift" in the culture of consumption might include fewer children among both rich and poor. There is room for such a changes, as a very serious "correction" would still only take the U.S. down to the level of its economic peers.