The Cause of America’s Declining Birthrate

The birthrate in the United States has fallen to record lows, according to a new study published by the Pew Research Center. What’s more, the report says the most dramatic drop has been among foreign-born Hispanic women.

We have been content for some time that the U.S.-born Caucasian birth rate was below replacement but that the Hispanics had been making up for it by having births higher than replacement, and that this made us unique in the industrialized west.

Pew reports, “The overall U.S. birthrate, which is the annual number of births per 1,000 women in the prime childbearing ages of 15-44, declined 8% from 2007 to 2010. The birthrate for U.S.-born women decreased by 6% during these years, but the birth rate for foreign-born women plunged 14%—more than it had declined over the entire 1990-2007 period. The birth rate for Mexican immigrant women fell even more, by 23%.”

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The National Center for Health Statistics says the over all birth rate in 2011 is the lowest in this country since 1920. The peak year for U.S. births was 1957 when it was nearly double what it is today. With very little change, birth rates have edged downward since that time.

Pew says the reason for the current slide and what has been repeated endlessly in the press is the “Great Recession” caused this. Given the state of the economy in recent years, an economic answer is certainly plausible.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute is one of America’s big brains on demography and almost everything else. He has never really bought into the common wisdom that Hispanics have been reproducing at higher rates than Anglos and therefore the current slide may not be a slide at all.  He suggests that babies born to undocumented women may simply have been credited to documented mothers. This would have increased the births per woman for Hispanics.

While economics could have played a part in any decline, Eberstadt sees other things at play.  He points to the continuing fracture of the U.S. family structure. People of all ethic backgrounds are running from marriage and family formation. No way this couldn’t affect fertility rates. There may be lots of babies being born out of wedlock but you have to believe that most single mothers are not having multiple babies that way. They learn how to stop pretty quickly once reality dawns that their single motherhood won’t be like Madonna.

Eberstadt points to another Pew study that might shed light on fertility declines. Last October they released a study that shows a dramatic decline in religious belief. One-third of Americans between the ages of 18-24 say they have no religion. Those in the study were called “Nones.” There are more and more of them.

What does religious belief have to do with embracing children? Eberstadt says there is a strong correlation. Nones in the U.S. and Europe have matching low fertility rates while religious people in the U.S. have the same relatively high fertility rate as their counterparts in Europe. The problem for Europe is they have so many Nones. Our problem could be that we are catching up.

Why such a correlation? It could be that Nones look at this world and see nothing beyond it. This is it. There is no more. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Alvy Singer is scolded for not doing his homework. “The universe is everything,” he says, “and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything! So what’s the point?” Such nihilism must do something to the psyche and to the desire to multiply. Woody Allen had only one biological child.

For religious people the universe is not everything, far from it. And even if the universe ended, it’s still not everything. And we would still live on. That must do something to the psyche, too, and it results in many good things including children.

And then there is greed. We live in an awful greedy age. Religious folk may have a slight edge on the Nones in the greed department but not by much. This greedy age seeps into our very pores. It infects everything and everyone to a greater or lesser extent. Face it, children are inconvenient. When my wife and I married we went to Europe a lot. When our first daughter came, we still went to Europe but less. Our second daughter has never been to Europe.

For many people such things really matter. They want to be able to go to Europe or Bermuda or Patagonia. They want a new car every two years. They want a vacation house. Those inconvenient children can stand in the way of all of this. Even one child can stand in the way. Now think about two or three or four children and then ponder a future of vacations not in Paris but at the small lake down the road.

So, sure, if the Hispanic decline is real, economics may have played a part. The Great Recession might have played a part, but consider this; people far poorer than they have continued to get married, found families and produce children. This is true throughout history.

The problem to ponder is not about fertility rates and the Great Recession, but about how to chase greed from the human heart once it’s found a home there.

Editor’s note: The image above is a publicity shot from the 1950 film “Cheaper by the Dozen” staring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.


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