Birth Rates Drop Amid Faltering Economy
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And Im Robert Siegel.
Last month, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Senate Banking Committee that the economic outlook remains unusually uncertain. Uncertainty has obvious consequences for business; people are less likely to produce more goods if they're unsure that there'll be a market for them.
And here's the biggest lagging economic indicator of them all. When the economy is really uncertain and unemployment is running high, people are less likely to produce more people. The birth rate goes down. We've just seen some new numbers from Illinois that are in line with that.
And we're joined now by demographer Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau. Welcome to the program.
Dr. MARK MATHER (Associate Vice President, Domestic Programs, Population Reference Bureau): Thank you.
SIEGEL: Those numbers from Illinois suggest the lowest birth rate since Great Depression. Is that in line with what we're seeing elsewhere in the country?
Dr. MATHER: We have seen this trend in several other states and it's a little bit early to say happening at the national level. But we've seen similar types of trends in California. We've seen this in Arizona. It's definitely happening in other places, and not only - actually in other countries, as well.
SIEGEL: How well does the birth rate track with economic difficulties?
Dr. MATHER: Well, we had a big drop in fertility during the 1930s, during the Great Depression. And again when we had hyperinflation during the 1970s, and thats when we actually reached an all-time low of about 1.7 births per woman. So we have seen this historically that birth rates tend to decline during severe economic turmoil.
SIEGEL: And before the current economic turmoil began, what was happening with the birth rate in the U.S.?
Dr. MATHER: We've been fairly steady, moving along at around two or 2.1 births per woman. We're still right around that level, but some of the state level data suggest that in the coming years we could see a drop.
SIEGEL: Have you seen enough data to be able to tell which groups of people are leading the trend away from having babies now, and which are bucking the trend?
Dr. MATHER: Well, thats a good question because I think the recession has affected just about everybody. And so whether you're in a high-income group or low-income group, there's a lot of uncertainty about the future. We dont have those data yet, but personally I would kind of think that it would be across the board.
SIEGEL: Are you waiting now for some particular report of information that would clarify this? When do we see some new numbers?
Dr. MATHER: One of the challenges here is that there's a lag in when we receive the national figures. And part of the reason is that the National Center for Health Statistics has to collect all these data from each of the states. It's also challenging because obviously birth decisions take place nine months before the actual birth...
SIEGEL: Yeah, thats the other lag that we have to take into account here.
Dr. MATHER: A built-in lag here. But we're really waiting to see what those national figures show, especially for 2008, 2009.
SIEGEL: Given those lags, is there some point which we can say: That's where we began to see the drop in the birth rate in some American states?
Dr. MATHER: Yeah, it looks like 2008 is where we started to really see a decline start to occur. And so, if you think back to what was happening in 2007, I dont think the recession was really hitting us full impact at that time, but we were starting to see big drops in housing prices, maybe the stock market was starting to drop. So there were certain factors that might have been affecting people's decisions.
SIEGEL: And the kind of decline that we're witnessing, is it sufficient so that five years from now, kids in kindergarten will, you know, have fewer kids in class and that group will go through life with a little competition for spaces in schools than their older brothers?
Dr. MATHER: Well, it will. I mean, if you put this recession in a broader context, there's lots of other demographic, economic factors at work here that might lead to smaller cohorts of youth. So we've got an aging population. We have more women who are postponing marriage and childbirth because of their careers. We've seen a drop in immigration to the United States during the recession. And so, that combined with this economic decline, I think we could see smaller groups kids moving through the educational system.
SIEGEL: Dr. Mather, thank you very much for talking with us.
Dr. MATHER: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Mark Mather who is associate vice president at the Population Reference Bureau.