Trendspotting: Babies and the Economy
Recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a decline in births in the U.S., down 4 percent between 2007 and 2009; births to teens aged 15-19 fell 8 percent during that time frame. CDC analysts examining 2010 data estimate that further declines in the birth rate are likely, as the graph below details. (Fertility rate refers to the number of births per thousand women, in this case those aged 15-44.)
Births to teens fell as well. Despite fears of a “pregnancy pact” in 2008, or that movies like Juno (2007) and shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom (2009-present) would inspire teens to get pregnant, we have seen declines in teen pregnancies, as the graph below details.
In fact, the teen birth rate is the lowest it has been in American history, at 39.1 per thousand in 2009. In contrast, in 1957 the teen birth rate was 96.3 per thousand. Most of the teenage mothers are 18-19-year-olds. In fact, a few years ago when teen birth rates rose after years of decline (see the slight bump around 2005 in the graph above), much of that rise was in the older teen group.
Births to young girls aged 10-14 (not pictured on this graph) are also at an all-time low, according to the CDC. “The 2009 birth rate for females aged 10-14 was 0.5 births per 1,000, the lowest ever reported and two-thirds lower than in 1990 (1.4). Moreover, the number of babies born to this age group has fallen to the fewest in nearly 60 years, to 5,030 in 2009.”
In fact, the only age group that has exhibited increases in fertility are women over 40. While the birth rate for women 40-49 was lower than any age group in 2009 except for 10-14 year-olds, the birth rate for 40-44 year-olds increased 6 percent from 2007, and births to women 45-49 years old—a group the CDC had traditionally not counted in fertility rates—increased seventeen percent during this time.
What might explain these trends?
Many personal factors play a role in whether or not someone gets pregnant. In fact, we might argue that this is one of the most intimate aspects of our lives.
But there are important sociological issues that influence when and why babies are born. One of the most important has to do with economic realities. When reporting on this trend, many news stories, like this one from CNN, highlighted the role the recession may have played in lowering the birth rate.
But what about the upward trend in births to women over 40? Aren’t they impacted by the recession too?
Ironically, it may be the financial stability of women over 40 that partly explains this trend. Advances in fertility medicine are likely helping many of these births, but these treatments can cost thousands of dollars. Having had the opportunity to advance within the labor force, this age group likely has resources available that younger women do not. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in March 2011, the unemployment rate for women aged 40-44 was 6.5 percent, compared with 7.6 percent for women 35-39, 8.7 percent for women 25-34, and 12.7 percent for women 20-24.
In her book Ready: Why Women are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, Women’s Studies scholar Elizabeth Gregory interviewed 113 mothers aged 35 and older, finding that many of her respondents report having stable careers and marriages, making childrearing more attractive.
As you can see from the graph below, there have been several dips in the fertility rate throughout history. Fertility rates fell during the 1920s, a time when the economy overall was strong and unemployment low. This was also a time when activists like Margaret Sanger promoted contraception and family planning, and the women's suffrage movement successfully lobbied for the right to vote in a push for greater equality.
Declines in fertility during this time might also be linked with growing urbanization, when more Americans lived in cities than in rural farming communities where having many children is economically necessary.
The start of the Great Depression and entry into World War II likely influenced the plateau we see in birth rates in the 1930s and 40s. Following the war, economic growth made it easier for couples to marry early and afford children. The midcentury baby boom ended in the mid-1960s, and American fertility rates have remained lower ever since.
What economic and sociological factors do you think help explain the relatively low birth rates over the past 40 years?