What's Behind the Recession's Birth Dearth

Demographers want to know if the drop in fertility is permanent
Photographer: Amani Willett/Gallery Stock

The latest recession left the U.S. with its lowest fertility rate on record. Before the economy contracted in 2007, the U.S. produced 69.3 babies per 1,000 fertile-age women, enough to keep the population stable. According to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2013 they had just 62.5 babies, below the replacement rate. If this isn’t a temporary blip associated with the weak economy, the American population will start to shrink.

Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, estimates that “if 2007 birth trends had stayed on track we’d have 2.3 million more babies. … It was a much higher number than I expected.” The recent baby bust is notable because it was mostly attributable to young Hispanic women who are legal U.S. residents. Until recently, they were largely responsible for maintaining the U.S.’s population. In 2007, Hispanic females accounted for 17 percent of women age 15 to 44, but they produced 25 percent of babies. Hispanic fertility plummeted during the recession. Their fertility rate fell a third, a drop that accounts for 56 percent of the recession’s decline in babies. Hispanic birthrates are now closer to those of whites and blacks.

Hispanic Americans were more adversely affected by the recession than other groups. They tend to be younger, to be less educated, and to live in states more affected by the housing bust. Gretchen Livingston, a demographer and sociologist at the Pew Research Center, says the recession can explain a large part of the Hispanic fertility drop. “Because Hispanic women have babies younger, they can and often must delay having children when there’s a bad economy,” she says. Other groups hurt by the recession, such as blacks, did not experience the same decline.

Past recessions also resulted in fewer births. According to Johnson, fertility fell during the Depression, with long-term results. “About 22 percent of women who started their childbearing careers at the start of the Depression remained childless,” he says. Johnson says he thinks something similar may be happening today. The size of the population may not recover if the recession hastened long-term fertility trends among Hispanic women. Livingston says Hispanic women were already having fewer babies before the recession. This may reflect a cultural shift on both sides of the Mexican-U.S. border. According to Livingston, in 1960 the average woman in Mexico had 7.3 pregnancies in her lifetime. Now the average is 2.4.

Hispanic Americans may be adopting habits such as postponing motherhood and having fewer children. Johnson says second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans now account for a larger share of the Hispanic population in the U.S. The longer a family is in America, the more it assimilates. Before the recession, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, who are more established in the U.S., had fertility rates similar to whites. During the recession they didn’t experience the large birth declines of Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans.

Should the latest recession result in a permanently lower fertility rate, this trend may yield benefits. Most of the recession-era birth drop occurred in Hispanic women under the age of 24. Having fewer children later, when families are more financially secure, is associated with more successful, productive parents and children across all ethnic groups. If the babies born in the last recession prove more productive, that might make up for there being fewer of them.