U.S. Birthrate Dropped During Recession

A new report by the Pew Research Center shows that the U.S. birthrate dropped sharply during the recession. Guy Raz speaks with senior demographer Carl Haub from the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau about the correlation of America's recessions and a decrease in birthrate.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

American women are having fewer babies. According to the Pew Research Center, the birthrate has been falling sharply since 2007, when more than 4.3 million babies were born. The reason? Demographers say it's the weak economy and high unemployment.

For more, we're joined by Carl Haub. He's senior demographer for the Population Reference Bureau. Carl, thanks for being here.

DR. CARL HAUB: Nice to be here.

RAZ: Let me start with where we are at today. Give me a sense of how the economy has affected birthrates in the U.S. since the start of the recession in 2008.

HAUB: Well, in 2007, in terms of numbers, we had about 4.3 million births.

RAZ: The highest number in American history, right?

HAUB: Yes, correct. Even higher than the baby boom but, of course, that's because our population is larger. In 2010, we had four million. In fact, we almost dipped below four million. Now, that's not a huge drop when you compare it to, say, the low birthrates in Europe but it still 300,000 babies.

RAZ: That's significant.

HAUB: Yeah, and that matters, especially to companies. You know, demographers may care a little more about rates, but people who are trying to sell things care about numbers.

RAZ: Give me a sense of how right now compares to other times, when the economy went south - the Great Depression, for example.

HAUB: Oh, yeah. We had two big drops in our birthrate in the 20th century. One, of course, was the Great Depression and it bottomed out in 1936. And certainly I think that it's no surprise, and I doubt that anyone doubts what the cause was. Then in the 1970s, we had our lowest birthrate in our entire history. In 1976, it was the only year in which American women averaged about 1.7 children. But that was a complicated decade.

The birthrate really began dropping in the late '60s. And I think most people believe that that was due to changing roles of women and the way, you know, what women saw as their future and as their role in life, certainly. We had Roe versus Wade in the early '70s - 1973, I believe. And then we had the gas crisis, plus we had stagflation. We had rapidly increasing housing prices but salaries stayed the same.

RAZ: Clear through the late '80s, the '90s and into the 2000s, the birthrate in the U.S. was pretty steady, around 2.0 - sometimes a little bit higher than that. Now it's just slightly below two. So it's not always the economy which is the central factor here, right?

HAUB: No, it's not always. There are - as I say, I think the '70s was a decade of really profound social change. But now when we look at the drop in the birthrate today, that's all been done. Now we have, I think it's probably fair to say that the only factor we can really look to is the economy.

RAZ: Should we expect - and we don't have the data for 2011, but do you expect those numbers to continue to fall?

HAUB: I would say yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAUB: I won't hedge the bet on the - I would say yes. If they stopped going down it wouldn't be a total surprise. If they went up, it would be a shock.

RAZ: If 4.3 million babies were born in the U.S. in 2007 and that number dropped to four million last year, and we can expect that number to have dropped even further this year, what are some of the consequences here? What does this mean now, 20 years on?

HAUB: Sure. The - first and foremost, for today, it certainly means a declining and shrinking market for all of the things that young families would buy. If you had, say, 300,000 fewer babies born, to marketers and companies, that's not good news. Then as we look further down the road, school enrollments would begin to fall. We would need fewer teachers. Colleges and universities might have some difficulty in, you know, in bringing in students that they would like to.

RAZ: So this is going to have an economic effect?

HAUB: Certainly. And it – also, it'll vary by state, of course. The drops have been larger in some states, say, in Arizona. A school board, I think, that looks at 15 percent fewer students has some tough decisions to make down the road.

RAZ: Carl Haub, thank you so much.

HAUB: Thank you, too.

RAZ: That's Carl Haub. He's senior demographer for the Population Reference Bureau, talking about the declining birthrates here in the U.S.

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