The U.S. birth rate is on the decline — and no, it's not just because of the pandemic

·6-min read

Baby fever has cooled off in the U.S., where the birth rate has dropped to its lowest level since 1979, according to a new report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with experts speculating that the economy, immigration rates and lacking pro-family policies are possible reasons.    

Per the report released Wednesday, 3,605,201 babies were born in 2020, a 4 percent decrease from 2019, marking the sixth consecutive year of declining births. The report, based on 99.87 percent of all 2020 birth records, showed a total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman during her childbearing years), of 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women last year, down 4 percent from 2019 and "another record low for the nation." The report also found that last year, the birth rate for teens ages 15 to 19 dropped by 8 percent.  

“On average, every woman of child-bearing years has to birth at least 2.1 children in order for the population to replace itself,” Adina Batnitzky, an associate professor of sociology at University of San Diego, tells Yahoo Life. “The United States is presently moving below replacement fertility levels, which is not good for the economy.” Adds Pamela Smock, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, "We will eventually have fewer working adults caring for the elderly, which further challenges our Social Security system."

According to the experts, it’s too simplistic to blame this low birth rate solely on the pandemic (most 2020 babies were conceived before the pandemic started). More likely the crisis exacerbated trends that were already in motion. 

The U.S. birth rate is at its lowest since 1979
The U.S. birth rate is at its lowest since 1979, according to a new report from the CDC. (Getty Images)

People are getting married and having babies later in life

Unlike previous generations that prioritized marriage and children at earlier ages, people these days are delaying both milestones. Smock points to recent U.S. Census Bureau data showing the median age of marriage for men at 30.5 and for women at 28.1. And according to the CDC, in 2019 the average age of mothers at first birth was 27, a slight increase from 2018, when that age was 26.9.

Some countries like Sweden and France offer family allowances to offset the costs of childrearing as an incentive to procreate — and in March, the House and the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan Act, which gives hefty tax breaks to parents — although according to Smock, such policies generally don’t affect birth rates. “For example, Sweden has a generous paid leave policy, but men are taking little of it, as masculinity is still connected to being the breadwinner,” she says. 

The United States does not offer federally mandated family leave

The U.S. is the only country of 41 nations that does not mandate paid family leave policies, compared to systems abroad that offer anywhere from two months to one year for parents, according to the Pew Research Center. As C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, previously told Yahoo Life, American cultural expectations shape public policy. “If we believe that every person who is a primary caregiver will have their basic needs met, we would create [appropriate] policies, but that’s not how we understand motherhood,” she said. “That’s not how we enter the conversation. So our policy outcomes are a reflection of what we believe about mothers and which [ones] are deserving.” 

Childcare is scarce and expensive

Childcare has always been expensive, but the pandemic has spiked costs by 47 percent, according to the Center for American Progress. While a Thursday report published by Reuters found that childcare centers are operating with limited capacity and fewer licensed providers. "The cost of childcare is absolutely a factor [in the lower birth rate]," says Batnitzky. "People explicitly make fertility decisions based on economics."

And with more women than men leaving their jobs or cutting their work hours last year to care for children during remote learning, says Batnitzky, “It might not be logistically or economically possible to have a second child.”

Immigration growth has slowed

One measure of population growth is immigration, the rate of which grew slowly between 2017 and 2019, according to 2019 Census Bureau data. Robert E. Lang, a professor of public policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, attributes lower immigration rates in part to former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies. That administration separated families at the U.S. border, increased ICE enforcement and attempted to abolish DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) which allows so-called Dreamers, people who illegally entered the U.S. as children, to apply for work permits and Social Security numbers. (President Biden has since reinstated the Obama-era policy).

“When you look at immigrants, it’s not a random sample,” Lang tells Yahoo Life. “It's a special kind of person who is going to battle language differences and customs. That person is typically more energetic, prone to taking risks in business or in family life." 

Teens are more sexually informed

The teen pregnancy rate had already hit a record low in 2019 (less than 18 births per 1,000 females between the ages of 15 and 19), according to the Pew Research Center, with the group pointing to increased contraception use and pregnancy awareness. And over time, pop culture has influenced teenage sexual behavior — a 2014 study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the MTV series "16 and Pregnant" which followed the lives of expecting teens, led to a 4.3 percent decrease in teen births 18 months after its debut. "…which suggest that this show led to increased interest in contraceptive use and abortion, as captured by internet search and tweeting behavior."

There’s a growing child-free movement

It’s becoming more culturally acceptable for women to forgo having children, due to increased college enrollment rates (which have exceeded male rates every year since 2000, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute) and — shortly before the pandemic — more women in the workforce. “Women’s roles and identities are changing and there’s a realization that not all necessarily need to reproduce,” says Batnitzky. And global crises like climate change and the pandemic have influenced family planning. According to a recent Guttmacher Institute study, the pandemic has caused more than 40 percent of women to question when and how to grow their families, with childless women more commonly changing fertility decisions than parents.

Smock attributes the aforementioned effect to fear and uncertainty in a changing economy. “We’re seeing well-paid jobs disappear and more gig-based jobs,” she notes. “It may contribute to more individualism, the idea that it’s OK to pursue your own growth and happiness.”

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