Baby Bust: Why The U.S. Birth Rate Is Declining

The U.S. birth rate is at the lowest level ever recorded, according to the Pew Research Center. One contributing factor is a sharp drop in the number of immigrant women having babies. Host Michel Martin discusses the trend with Pew researcher Gretchen Livingston and with Maria Gomez of Mary's Center, an immigrant social services organization.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we've been hearing a lot of debate about whether the relationship between colleges and their student athletes is a fair one. Now, one educator is suggesting that we treat these athletes the same way we do performing artists. Why not let them major in sports? We'll have more on that in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about some startling news about America's population. In 2011, the U.S. birth rate was the lowest ever recorded: 63.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. That, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and that decline was largely due to a drop in the number of immigrant women having babies.

We wanted to learn more about what's behind this trend, so I'm joined now by Gretchen Livingston. She's a senior researcher at the Pew Hispanic Center, co-author of a report on these new figures.

Also with us is Maria Gomez, CEO and president of Mary's Center. That's a nonprofit that provides health and other services in the Washington, D.C. area and serves many immigrant women and families.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

GRETCHEN LIVINGSTON: Thanks.

MARIA GOMEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Gretchen Livingston, just for those who are interested, 63.2 births per 1,000 in 2011. At the peak in 1957, the rate was 122.7 per 1,000, so for people who are interested, that really is a huge drop from the peak. Why are we focusing on the role of immigrant women in this story? Is it that the rate among immigrant women has dropped precipitously or is that immigrant account for so many of the births of newborns and anything that happens in this population affects the overall numbers?

LIVINGSTON: Honestly, it's a little bit of both. If we focus just on the past period since the recession, since about 2007, immigrant women have really led the dramatic decline in births that have occurred since that time. Their rates are down about 14 percent and it is all about the rates during that time period. It's not about the number of immigrant women changing during that time period.

If you want to take the broader view and look back to, let's say 1990, as we did in our report, what we find is that, though in the long term, immigrant birth rates and native-born birth rates have been declining somewhat over that 20 year period. The fact is that the number of immigrants over that longer period has been increasing so that, overall, immigrant women are helping to sustain U.S. fertility.

MARTIN: So, for example, from 2007 - this is from your report - from 2007 to 2010, the overall number of births declined seven percent, but there was a 13 percent drop in births to immigrants and a relatively modest five percent decline in births to U.S.-born women, so you really see that there's a big change in behavior among immigrant women.

LIVINGSTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So, Maria, are you seeing this with your work, with your patients and clients?

GOMEZ: Very much. Very much so. As a matter of fact, we had a conversation with our midwives who said, where are our patients? Where are they going, you know? And I think that one big reason I tell you, Michel, is that the women are using a lot more contraceptives and they're using long term contraceptives. OK. Not that they weren't using contraceptives before, but now, they're using the IUDs, they're using Norplant and they're using the three month shots, so I think long term contraception has been very good.

It's been thankful that the Title 10, the Family Planning funds from the federal government, have allowed women to be able to be on that, so...

MARTIN: So they're really making diligent efforts to control their fertility? These women are making the effort. This is a proactive effort on their part?

GOMEZ: Yes. And I think...

MARTIN: It's not an accident, in other words.

GOMEZ: I don't think it is an accident. I think the economy has a lot to do with it. I think that there is also - you know, we sort of are the nature of - we do what's around us and so I think the American public has a certain number of children and people want to mimic that. We want to mimic that. I think...

MARTIN: You know, that was going to be my question because Gretchen Livingston just told us that the birth rate among all women in the U.S. began to decline in 2007, which is the year that we record as the beginning of the financial crisis, the economic downturn in this country. So I was going to ask - is this the economy or is it assimilation? Is it - what do you think?

GOMEZ: I think it's a combination of both and I think that assimilation has a lot to do with it, in addition to the fact that we also had a - we also have a big influx of professionals coming from those countries who, you know, assimilate to or are very similar to the birth rate of American U.S.-born and so professionals that come from other countries - it has an issue with that.

Then, also, I think it's - American people look at their families. They see the schools. They live in neighborhoods with U.S.-born Americans and they see that life is a little better. We have - I have a lot of clients that tell me, you know, it used to be that, you know, I had to have - our families had to have two or three or four children to be able to know that at least we would end up with one in our lifetime.

You know, technology is so much better now. They see that their two pound baby that is born lives and outlives them, you know, for a lifetime, so they know that technology is better now, so they know, what - if I have two children, those two children will outlive me. You know, it's not true back home.

MARTIN: Interesting. Gretchen, can I get your perspective on this? Do you think this is a matter of the economy or assimilation from whatever your data is telling you?

LIVINGSTON: Oh, I think it's both. I think, in the short term, from 2007 onward, a lot of what's going on is the economy. We've done other work that has shown that, for instance, states that have experienced the biggest economic declines are the same states that have subsequently experienced the biggest declines in their birth rates, so I think this very dramatic drop since 2007 across all groups, particularly for Hispanic immigrants and Mexican immigrants in particular, is probably economically-driven.

But I do agree that there is also these larger issues that have probably affected the long term declines in the foreign-born birth rates. I think, you know, that there is an assimilation factor as well, that the longer immigrants are in the U.S.

GOMEZ: Yeah. There...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Maria Gomez.

GOMEZ: I think that there is also - you know, there's been a lot more restrictions on housing and so, you know, where you used to have three children in a one bedroom apartment, that's not allowed anymore in cities like this and in large parts of the country and they're monitoring how many cars are in your driveway and that kind of - and so I think that there's a tendency, you know, of - a two bedroom apartment is almost double to a one bedroom apartment, so that - people are thinking - I think there's a lot more strategic thinking about what is in education. I think families are placing a great value on education and they recognize that, if I'm going to take a child through high school, through college, there's only so many you can do on a $10 an hour salary.

MARTIN: We're talking about the decline in the U.S. birth rate and among immigrant women, in particular. My guests are Maria Gomez of the health organization, Mary's Center. It provides services, health services and others in the Washington, D.C. area. Also with us, Gretchen Livingston of the Pew Hispanic Center. Gretchen.

LIVINGSTON: I just wanted to add, when we were talking about the long term declines in birth rates for foreign-born women - it's also interesting to look at the countries they're coming from. A lot of those countries are experiencing long term birth rate declines, also.

Mexico, for instance, has had a huge decline in birth rates and fertility since - let's say 1960. Women averaged something like seven children in their lifetimes and now that number is down to something like 2.4 children. So, you know, that is just another factor to add into what's going on that's affecting - not so much the short term declines, but these longer term declines in birth rates among foreign-born women. Some of it relates to what they are bringing from their home countries.

MARTIN: One more question for you, Gretchen, is we used to hear a lot about teen pregnancy and those rates have declined over three decades, as well. And did that contribute? Did declines in teen pregnancy contribute to this overall drop?

LIVINGSTON: Well, you're absolutely right. The teen birth rates have absolutely plummeted. In just the last 20 years, they're down something like 43 percent, which is quite stunning, so to some extent, they do matter, but it is important to remember that teens really account for a relatively small share of all the births that occur. Something about 10 - something like 10 percent of all births, so the changes in their rates don't have quite as big an impact as changes in rates to older women would have.

MARTIN: Interesting. A final thought from you, Maria Gomez?

GOMEZ: Well, I think that, also, the whole emphasis on health education. HIV, I think, played a big role. The whole HIV education and outreach was a lot of placement around, you know, sexual activity, sexual behavior and all that. I think that that has played a big role.

I think that the big role, also, that we've maintained the Title 10, the Family Planning dollar stable has been really, really important to this issue and so, as an advocate of this, I think education and the Title 10 monies that need to continue to increase to the level of, you know, making sure that we keep this birth rate because I don't think the decline in birth rate is really a bad thing. It's people really thinking strategically.

MARTIN: Maria Gomez is president and CEO of Mary's Center. It provides health and other services to families and women and has a large population of immigrant families that it serves. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Gretchen Livingston. She is a senior researcher at the Pew Hispanic Center who recently wrote a report about the declining birth rates.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

LIVINGSTON: Thanks.

GOMEZ: Thank you so much, Michel.

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