The Real Story on the Falling U.S. Birth Rate

Photograph by Amani Willett/Gallery Stock

The Pew Research Center announced Nov. 29 that the U.S. birth rate fell to its lowest level since at least 1920, when reliable record-keeping began. That was true—but not news. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that way back on Oct. 3.

What was news was Pew’s analysis of the government data, which showed that the birth rate decline was greatest among immigrant women. “We were the first to point that out,” Gretchen Livingston, the lead author of Pew’s report, said in an interview.

Pew also suggested a reason for the falling fertility: a weak economy. States with the sharpest economic declines from 2007 to 2008 were the most likely to have bigger fertility declines from 2008 to 2009, it said. Hispanics, who suffered more from the economic downturn than other groups, also had bigger birth-rate declines.

“From 2007 to 2010, the overall number of births declined 7 percent, pulled down by a 13 percent drop in births to immigrants and a relatively modest percent decline in births to U.S.-born women,” Pew wrote.

Even with the decline, immigrant women have higher birth rates than native-born women. From 1990 through 2010, overall births in the U.S. fell 4 percent. Births by native-born women fell 13-14 percent, Livingston said.

Before the Pew report came out, Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau wrote a blog post headlined: “Reports That the U.S. Birth Rate in 2011 Was the Lowest in History Are, Well, Wrong.” That was a reaction to earlier news reports on the National Center for Health Statistics’ report. In fact, those reports weren’t wrong. They simply chose a different method for measuring fertility.

The general fertility rate that Pew cited is the total number of births by women aged 15-44 as a share of all women aged 15-44. Haub prefers the total fertility rate, which controls for changes in the mix of women’s ages within the 15-44 population. By that measure, fertility was lower than it is now for a good part of the 1970s and 1980s, touching an all-time low in 1976.

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