There’s been a mini-‘boom’ of women in child-bearing age. But U.S. births hit a new low, well below replacement levels

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CDC data shows dropping birth rates for all age groups under 34, putting U.S. total fertility well below replacement rate — even though record numbers of women are in their peak childbearing years.

SALT LAKE CITY — Experts predict America’s fertility rate has not hit bottom yet, though it’s well below replacement rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday released new data showing year-over-year declines among women younger than 35 through the third quarter of 2018 compared to 2017.

And the new U.S. Fertility Forecast from Demographic Intelligence (DI) says the birth rate is not expected to rise in 2019 or 2020, either.

The CDC data come on the heels of another recent release of CDC data showing that in 2017, just two states — South Dakota and Utah — were projected to exceed the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. (Replacement rate refers to the number of births needed to hold population numbers stable.)

The new CDC report looks at the general fertility rate, a count of live births per 1,000 women. Demographers also pay attention to the total fertility rate, which is a projection of how many births a woman will have in her lifetime, based on existing age-specific birth rates. Planners and others use TFR to estimate potential growth.

The total fertility rate in the United States in 2017 was predicted to be 1.76 children per woman over the course of her lifetime; that prediction fell to 1.72 in 2018 based on smaller age-specific birth rates. How accurate these total fertility rate projections are won’t be known until the women in the different age groups finish having children. It’s possible that a projection based on decreases in births to teen mothers can be reversed as women have more babies than projected when they reach their 30s, for example.

Aaron Thorup, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Fertility rates have declined “especially for first births and among younger households having a hard time getting their feet under them,” said Lyman Stone, economist and DI adviser, in a DI news release.

Stone noted that “women are more determined to have their ‘ducks in a row’ in terms of education and partnership” before they give birth.

Experts say a woman’s sense the time is right can be derailed by any number of financial worries, from fears about housing costs or student loan debt to poor job prospects, among others.

Meanwhile, fertility among younger and less-educated women has been dropping since 2009. “One of the big stories about why the total fertility rate has been declining nationally is near-eradicaton of teen pregnancy,” Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, recently told the Deseret News.

“Most think it’s great that teen births are down,” said Samuel Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence.

But at the same time, one concern about falling birth rates is that they’ll drop so low they’ll lead to economic stagnation or a working-age population that can’t adequately care for the elderly or support safety net programs or services. Still, Sturgeon said recently, despite the collective impact, holding off on having children is the kind of advice one might give individual loved ones: “Wait until you’re ready.”

The decline in fertility is a trend that somewhat bucks tradition, because typically births increase when the economy is doing well, and economists note the U.S. economy right now is “rebounding.” Besides that, America has also seen a “rapid increase in the population of women who are near their peak childbearing years,” the DI release said. That is being called an “Echo Baby Boom” or a “boomlet.”

DI reported that the only groups in which birth rates are rising are Asian women having more than one child, college-educated women having more than one child, and any birth to women older than 35.

U.S. News and World Report recently wrote that “nationally, total fertility rates were highest among Hispanic women, with a rate of 2,006.5 (births per 1,000 women of child-bearing age), followed by 1,824.5 among black women and 1,666.5 among whites. In a sign of the nation’s shifting racial demographics, no state had a total fertility rate at or above replacement level for white women. Twelve states hit the mark for black women, and 29 did so for Hispanic women, who may be of any race.”

If fertility declines, immigration can boost the numbers. Otherwise, populations shrink, Perlich said. The age at which women have children also impacts birth data, including impacting how many they have.

Because total fertility is a prediction, it takes time to assess the accuracy, though Demographic Intelligence says its forecast “is typically 98 percent accurate in predicting U.S. birth trends.”

“There’s a big difference between births that are delayed and births that are foregone entirely,” Sturgeon added.

Sorting that out will take a look back, not a look forward.


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