Drop In Overall Birth Rates, Teen Pregnancies Linked To Recession

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Two separate studies released this week indicate that birth rates in the U.S. have gone down. Both studies find a strong link to the recession. Among other findings — teen pregnancy has gone down. Guest host Audie Cornish speaks with D'Vera Cohn , who co-authored the Pew study and Professor Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and Family Studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

I'm Audie Cornish and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, a devastating diagnosis turned teenager Ryan White into the symbol of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Now, on the 20th anniversary of his death, his mother talks with us about his legacy and her continuing work in spreading awareness about HIV and AIDS.

But, first, two different reports released this week show the U.S. birth rate is going down and that the economy may be to blame. The numbers from the Pew Research Center and the National Center for Health Statistics show that last year's two percent drop in the birth rate reverses years of increases the U.S. had enjoyed since 2003.

Joining us now to discuss the findings is D'Vera Cohn. She's a senior writer at the Pew Research Center. Also joining us is Stephanie Coontz. She's a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. D'Vera and Stephanie, welcome to the program.

Ms. D'VERA COHN (Senior Writer, Pew Research Center): Thank you.

Professor STEPHANIE COONTZ (History and Family Studies, Evergreen State College): Thank you.

CORNISH: D'Vera, I want to begin with you and the Pew Research Center's work. How significant is this decline and how strong is the link to the recession?

Ms. COHN: Well, overall, for the country, the rate of birth was down one percent, as you mentioned. The number of births were down nearly two percent in 2008, compared with 2007. So, there's a noticeable drop. And what we found when we looked across states was that in the 25 states whose data we looked at, there was a similar decline that we were able to link to some economic indicators.

CORNISH: So, you drilled down to the not the top 25 states, but states that make up a sizeable part of the population. And did you find links is it income, is it housing? How did you decide, what's an economic factor?

Ms. COHN: Well, what we did is we took 25 states for which 2008 final birth numbers were available. It sometimes takes a while to clean up the data and we wanted to have the best possible numbers we could. And among those 25 states, we looked at what links there were between change in the birth rate and change in several key economic indicators. And we found what we call a significant association between a change in the birth rate and five economic indicators, four of them related to change the previous year.

One was change in per capital income, 2006, 2007. Another was change in the gross domestic product. Another was change in first unemployment claims, and then the fourth was change in housing prices. And then we also looked at the foreclosure rate in 2007 and also found an association. So, in essence, the magnitude or strength of these economic indicators related to the magnitude or strength of the change in birth rates.

CORNISH: And, Stephanie, put this in context for us. Is this kind of decline really unusual, historically?

Prof. COONTZ: Well, no. Whenever you have serious economic depressions, people begin to cut back on their birth. It used to be simply a matter of another mouth to feed that you couldn't afford. But now even more than that, it's the growing cost of raising a child. And, you know, especially in the United States where we have such tremendous inequality between people who can go on to advanced degrees and who can't, I think a lot of couples start to look at their economic security and say, can I afford to put another child through college?

CORNISH: Now, D'Vera, the Pew study really drilled down to the state level and I want to get a sense of which states had the biggest drops and are those states where we see the biggest economic declines, as well?

Ms. COHN: Sure. Let me talk briefly about three of those: Arizona, California and Florida. Those states are pretty familiar to people who've been reading news about foreclosures and housing price declines and unemployment and so forth. Arizona had the largest decline in the birth rate 2007 to 2008. Nearly down nearly five percent and, as we know, that compares with the national decline of about one percent.

And among the states we looked at, it ranked second in terms of per capita income change and fifth for foreclosure rates. So, you know, up toward the top of the states we looked at. California ranked third among the states we looked at for birth rate change, down nearly three percent. And, again, it was, number one, for housing price change, number three, for foreclosure rate. And somewhat lower, 12 for per capita income change 2006, 2007.

CORNISH: So you're looking at how much money people are making and whether they can keep their house.

Ms. COHN: Exactly. And then Florida, the last one, three percent decline in the birth rate and they were number one change for income, number four for housing price change and number one for foreclosures. So, a lot of the states where the economic downturn has hit hardest also saw, the following year, a decline in their birth rate.

CORNISH: I want to turn to another finding in the data from the National Center of Health Statistics that shows that birth rates dropped by two percent in girls between the ages of 15 to 19. And Hispanics also saw a particularly significant drop in pregnancy rates. And this comes after a period of people were worried about increased teen pregnancy.

And I'm wondering, with you, Professor Coontz, do you see this as a meaningful change?

Prof. COONTZ: Well, I think that what's really significant about it is there tends to be this panic attack when a trend ticks upward. In fact, for the past 10 years we've had a very strong downward trend in teen pregnancies. It ticked up in 2005 and 06. And people got very worried that we were on our way upward again. It looks as though this is not a trend, that we are continuing the stabilization that we've seen in this area.

CORNISH: And, professor, on the other end of the spectrum, birth rates actually increased in women between the ages of 40 to 44. What do you see there?

Prof. COONTZ: Well, I think that, you know, I certainly don't have any immediate answer. I can't do the kind of associations that D'Vera can with her data. But I do think that part of it is simply the rising age of marriage, which on the whole is good for America. Women who marry at an older age are less likely to divorce. They bring more emotional and educational, as well as economic, resources to their child rearing. But they also face a longer time when they may run up against their biological clock ticking.

And I think that you're getting quite a different set of decision-making questions coming in when you're talking about women in their 40s unmarried having children than teenagers having children. And I think that on the whole, it's not half as much of a risk to the kids because we know that, in fact, a mother's education and her aspirations for her children, her educational aspirations for her children are actually a better predictor of child outcomes than her marital status.

CORNISH: Now, D'Vera, give us a sense what to look for in the next year. Should we expect this trend to continue?

Ms. COHN: Well, generally research shows that these declines are relatively small and temporary. And that after recessions end, people then try to compensate by having the babies that they postponed during economic hard times.

CORNISH: D'Vera Cohn is a senior writer at the Pew Research Center and a co-author of the most recent study on decreasing birth rates. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Stephanie Coontz is a professor of history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She joined us by phone from her home there. Thank you both.

Ms. COHN: Thank you.

Prof. COONTZ: Thank you.

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