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US Birthrates Decline in Wake of Poor Economy

Babies in leaves
Birthrates in northern latitudes peak during the spring, whereas lower-latitude birthrates peak during the summer and fall. (Image credit: © Anatoliy Samara |

Americans responded to the 2008 recession by having fewer children, a new report finds. And preliminary data suggests that the U.S. birthrate is still dropping.

The Pew Research Center analyzed multiple sources of data and found that birthrates began to decline in 2008 after a high point of 4,326,233 new babies in the U.S. in 2007. By 2009, the number of births fell to 4,131,018, and early numbers suggest that barely more than 4 million babies were born in 2010.

The numbers track closely with statistics on household income and other economic indicators, the Pew report finds; also, states experiencing the largest economic declines in 2007 and 2008 were the most likely to see large declines in fertility. Among racial and ethnic groups, Hispanics experienced the largest fertility declines.

Fewer babies

In 2007, the U.S. fertility rate was 69.6 births per thousand women of childbearing age. In 2009, that same number was 66.7 births per thousand women. Provisional data suggests the fertility rate in 2010 was only 64.7 births. [See a breakdown of birthrates by state]

Between 2008 and 2009, birthrates dropped by 5.9 percent among Hispanics, compared with 2.4 percent among blacks and 1.6 percent among whites.

Hispanics have been hardest hit by unemployment and loss of wealth since the downturn, while whites have fared best among the three major racial and ethnic groups. 

Fertility and recession

No matter how you slice it, the fertility rate appears to be closely linked to the economy. The Pew researchers compared state-by-state economic and fertility data and found that changes in per capita income, per capita GDP, employment rate, unemployment rate and initial unemployment claims correlated with changes in state fertility rates between 2008 and 2009. State-level foreclosure rates in 2008 also correlated with fertility-rate changes. The only economic indicator not linked to fertility was the Home Price Index, an indicator of housing value.

People had fewer babies in 48 out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Between 2008 and 2009, North Dakota was the only state to show a change in the positive direction, with 0.7 percent more births in 2009 than the preceding year. Driven by oil exploration and production, employment in North Dakota has remained high throughout the recession, with only a 3.1 percent unemployment rate in 2008.

Declines in births occurred within a year or two of the start of the economic slide, the Pew researchers reported.

"This does not conclusively prove that the economic changes led to fertility changes," they wrote in the report released Wednesday (Oct. 12). "However, the timing is consistent with the time it might take people to act upon fertility decisions."

Economic research suggests that falling birthrates during a bad economyreflect people's decisions to put off having children, rather than their intention to have fewer children overall, the Pew researchers report.

"In other words," they wrote, "people put off having children during the economic downturn, and then catch up on fertility once economic conditions improve."

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.