Public Health

Birth And Divorce Rates Decline In A Sour Economy

Falling stocks are a big reason birth rates and divorces are falling too.

empty crib

hide captionFewer children mean cribs stay empty longer.

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For every thousand people in the United States, there were 13.5 live births in 2009, says a report just out from the nation's keeper of vital statistics. That's down from 13.9 in 2008, and 14.3 in the boomlet of 2007, just before the recession officially began.

Not only is that the lowest birth rate in a century, it's the second year in a row that birth rates have gone down.

"We are in a period when people are very cautious about making long-term, financial commitments, because that's what a child is nowadays, as well as an emotional commitment," says Stephanie Coontz. She teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College and has written several books on marriage and family.

It's the worst decline in births since the Great Depression, when people put off having babies when facing financial devastation, she says.

As for divorce, the rate was 3.4 percent last year, according to the reportĀ  — slightly less than in 2008 and in 2007.

Divorce rates have been declining for fifteen to twenty years, Coontz says, which is not all bad. "My own take on it is, men and women have come to terms about gender roles," she says. "You're getting more stable marriages where men are willing in to pitch in on the housework."

So more men are — in theory — picking up the kids, making dinner and doing the laundry these days. (Nice, but, P.S., women still do more.)

But the divorce picture now has is more complicated. Coontz fears the recent economic downturn has made it too expensive for unhappy couples who want to split up to make the break.

"I hope we're not back to the studies that I did on the Great Depression where people would actually hang blankets across the room [to divide it] where they couldn't afford to move out but they disliked each other so much," Coontz says.

Houses are a little bigger now, she notes, but it's still not good to have adults or children locked into a bad family situation.

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