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Falling Fertility: The Impact of Declining Birth Rates

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A report recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed some good news for our nation’s population growth for the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession. According to the study, the number of babies being born and the fertility rate increased by one percent–the first birth rate increase since 2007.

Growing birth rates are very important for a nation for a number of reasons, and the recent surge in births also points to several positive indicators, such as greater financial security. Read on to learn about the fuss about the birth rate, what it means for America, and what we need to consider about population growth moving forward.


A History of Fertility

To start, it is important to understand the terminology associated with birth rates. This begins with Total Fertility Rates (TFRs). This measures the average number of children a woman will have over the course of her life. Another term to understand is replacement level. The replacement level is the TFR required to maintain zero population growth, basically the number of births needed to equally replace the adults who are having babies. The United States’ replacement level is roughly 2.1 births per women. It is higher than two because it factors in the unfortunate truth that some people will die before they reach adulthood and can reproduce.

Around the turn of 20th century, the fertility rate in the United States was over three. The rate then dropped precipitously following the Great Depression, but that trend somewhat reversed leading into World War II, and the TFR continued to stay above replacement levels until the 1970s. There was a slight drop in the rate in this era, during the oil crisis. However, when the economy began to rebound again, so did the nation’s TFR, which continued at or above replacement levels until the Great Recession. The video below shows the correlation between birth rates and the economy:

Based on this data, it seems obvious that the number of births in the U.S. is tied to the success of the economy. But a more nuanced explanation is also required. For example, even when birth rates cratered during the Great Depression, they still remained higher than the birth rates following the uptick of the 1980s and 1990s. Essentially, the economy plays an important role, but current culture does too.


Falling Birth Rates

The recent low birth rates in the U.S. are not unique. In fact low birth rates might be the clearest predictor of a country’s level of development. In several European countries and Japan, the birth rate is 1.5 or lower, meaning below replacement levels. So, why is this happening and what do these shrinking birth rates mean? First let’s analyze the “why.” One of the common threads between these countries, besides a higher standard of living, is the improved status of women.

More Access to Education

One of the major factors in dictating how many children a woman is likely to have is how educated that woman is. It has been repeatedly shown that women who are exposed earlier to education and continue with their studies have lower birth rates. Conversely, in other nations in which this is not true, such as Eritrea on the eastern horn of Africa, birth rates are much higher at 4.6. This stands in stark contrast to highly educated Japan’s birth rate of 1.4.

Having Children Later

While the recent data did indicate that American women had more children last year, it also revealed something else interesting. Most of the women having those children were older, in the age groups of 30-34, 35-39, and even 40-44. On the other hand, women in the age bracket spanning 20-24 saw their number of births continue to decline.

Although having children later is not the taboo it once was, having a baby after the age of 40 still carries with it an added weight of potential health risks. But thanks to the fact that older woman are often healthier, more prepared financially and mentally, and are generally better educated, many of these concerns can be off-set.

Immigration

Following the “why” is the “what”: what do shrinking birth rates mean? One of the most important is that low birth rates can have a dramatic impact on immigration. Namely, in countries with low birth rates like Japan or Germany, immigration is needed to simply maintain the current size of the population. Additionally, since many of these countries will start or have already started to have a disproportionately older population, immigration can provide a needed youth infusion.

Who is Going Pay for All This?

There is a lot riding on how these countries either maintain or increase their populations. Specifically, developed nations need people to pay for the wide-reaching entitlement programs enjoyed by older citizens as they retire, such as Social Security in the U.S. It becomes harder for the population to support these programs when the number of people paying into them shrinks. As populations grow older, the number of people depending on them will continue to increase. With this is mind, countries with low birth rates either need to accept immigrants or find new ways to boost their populations naturally.


The Future of Babies

How are countries trying to up their birth rates?

While these countries grapple with declining birth rates and the need for more immigration, to quote a poem by Dylan Thomas, they, “do not go gentle into that good night.” Indeed, many of these countries already have plans in place to reverse their falling birth rates.

In Japan nearly $30 million has been designated for encouraging young, single people to meet and eventually get married. In Russia, the government directly gives couples up to $12,500 for having a second child or adopting. Many European countries meanwhile, focus on benefits after the baby is born, providing lavish maternity leave or child care. The United Sates is actually an outlier on this front, as it does not offer guaranteed maternity leave and really only provides minor tax breaks to women having children. This may explain in part why older, more secure women are the ones increasingly having children in the US.

Assistance from Technology

Technology is also playing a greater role in the number of births each year. In the United States for example, approximately 2,000 more babies were born in 2013 than in 2012 through in vitro fertilization, when an egg is directly impregnated in a medical procedure. However, there are various kinds of fertility treatments–combined they accounted for 1.5 percent of all births in the U.S. in 2013.

Private companies are also stepping into the proverbial baby-making arena. Both Apple and Facebook are offering programs that will pay to have their female workers’ eggs frozen. The idea is that once these women are at a point in their career where family seems more accessible or appropriate they can then use their frozen fertilized eggs to have children.

This approach has received mixed reviews however. While some laud the efforts as providing an avenue through which women interested in pursuing a career and a family can still hope to travel, others see it differently. To the second group, this approach does nothing to address the reasons why women feel compelled to choose. Additionally the health risks associated with having children from frozen eggs versus unfrozen are no less diminished in older women.


Conclusion

Moderating population size is a tricky task. At times it has been predicted that the growing population is unsustainable and that we are headed for disaster. Conversely, people are currently concerned about not having enough children and the subsequent dangers that would present to society.

In the United States, the birth rate has been falling more or less steadily for the last one hundred years and now hovers right around replacement levels. While there seems to be optimism following last year’s uptick in births, it follows on the heels of several years of consecutive declines that put the U.S., like many of its developed contemporaries, below replacement levels. It is still unclear if the recent increase is sustainable.

Perhaps what the declining birth rates have revealed most clearly is the changing role of women and the continued changes necessary for women to have children and still be able to pursue a professional career. The importance of this issue can be showcased by both national and private efforts to address it. Still, as of right now, the issue remains unresolved and a remedy is unclear. Even with birth rates recently back on the rise, in the future the concerns may change from the number of mouths to feed to whether or not we even have enough people to help feed them.


Resources

Primary

United Nations: Total Fertility Rate

World Bank: Fertility Rate, Total (births per woman)

Additional

Time: Rising Birth Rates a Good Sign for the Economy

Deseret New National: Can Government Incentives Reverse Falling Birth Rates?

Population Reference Bureau: World Population Data Sheet 2012

Earth Policy Institute: Education Leads to Lower Fertility and Increased Prosperity

Time: Women Keep Having Kids Later and Later

Yale Global Online: The Choice: More Immigrants or Less Citizens?

Genius: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Health Day: In Vitro births Continue to Rise in the U.S.

CNN: Egg-Freezing a Better Deal for Companies Than for Women

Michael Sliwinski
Michael Sliwinski (@MoneyMike4289) is a 2011 graduate of Ohio University in Athens with a Bachelor’s in History, as well as a 2014 graduate of the University of Georgia with a Master’s in International Policy. In his free time he enjoys writing, reading, and outdoor activites, particularly basketball. Contact Michael at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.

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