US Births Drop Sixth Year Straight

We're at the lowest rate in generations.

CNBC (“U.S. birth and fertility rates dropped to another record low in 2020, CDC says“):

U.S. birth and fertility rates dropped to another record low in 2020 as births fell for the sixth consecutive year to the lowest levels since 1979, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The number of births in the U.S. declined last year by 4% from 2019, double the average annual rate of decline of 2% since 2014, the CDC said in preliminary birth data released Wednesday. Total fertility rates and general fertility rates also declined by 4% since 2019, reaching record lows. The U.S. birth rate is so low, the nation is “below replacement levels,” meaning more people die every day than are being born, the CDC said.

While the agency didn’t directly attribute the overall drop in births to the Covid-19 pandemic, it looked at birth rates among New York City women who delivered their babies outside the five boroughs during the height of the outbreak in the U.S.

Women fled the city to give birth from March through November last year, with out-of-town births among NYC residents peaking in April and May at more than 10% for both months — a more than 70% increase from the previous year. Among white women, the percentage of out-of-town births was 2.5 times higher in 2020 than 2019. Out-of-town births among Black and Hispanic women were considerably lower and only increased for two of the months last year.

Overall, the number of births declined 3% for Hispanic women and 4% for white and Black women from 2019 to 2020.

Teen birth rates dropped considerably with births to 15- to 17-year olds falling by 6% and to 18- to 19-year olds falling by 7%, both hitting record lows.

Birth rates among women aged 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 dipped by 6% and 4%, respectively, both to record lows. Birth rates fell by 4% and 2% respectively among women aged 30 to 34 and 35 to 39, but did not reach record lows, according to CDC data.

Birth rates for women aged 40 fell 44 fell by 2% from 2019, but birth rates for women aged 45 and up remined unchanged. according to the CDC.

The data was based on population estimates derived from the 2010 census as of July 1 as well as counts of all birth records received and processed by the National Center for Health Statistics as of Feb. 11. The records represent nearly 100% of registered births occurring in 2020.

What accounted for the slightly higher drop last year will presumably be debated for a while but the overall trend is likely more interesting. But it’s the natural flip side of the coin of the delayed maturity issue we discussed recently. Americans have been steadily spending more time in school, pursuing ever-higher levels of formal education, and delaying entry into the labor force, marriage, and child-rearing.

Compound that with increased student loan debt, it seems natural that people will delay marriage and, especially, having children as they focus on working themselves into the clear. Women, in particular, face a rather steep penalty if they pause their careers to have kids, so the delay is extended further. Eventually, it becomes biologically harder to have kids. And people typically want fewer of them than they did in generations past.

The steady decline in teens and very-young-adults giving birth is an unalloyed good. So long as it’s about prioritization of life goals rather than economic necessity, it’s hard to get too worked up about the overall decline. But below-replacement-rate births is highly problematic in a society with a burgeoning retiree population that expects to draw from the public treasury for decades.

The typical American response has been to welcome more immigrants, particularly young ones. That’s currently an unpopular position.

UPDATE: Driving in this morning, I listened to yesterday’s episode of The Daily podcast, “A Population Slowdown in the U.S.” For the most part, the experts are talking about the same issues I muse about in the OP, with little consensus.

Not covered is the degree to which these same trends are taking place in the rest of the developed world, even in places with much more generous social welfare programs. Which leads some to think this is just a natural consequence of women being more fully free to make their own choices. If so, that’s obviously more to the good than the bad.

Despite the negative consequences for funding social programs and just growth in general, the hosts do point to some upsides:

  • This could be good for the climate. Fewer people is fewer polluters and less demand for resources.
  • Parents having fewer children may well invest more in the children they do have.
  • Fewer workers means demand for their services increases, strenthening their bargaining power.
FILED UNDER: Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    It’s interesting that as much as the religious right frets about the lack of family formation and fewer children, they are unwilling to support policies that will make in easier for young families to procreate and in fact often support polices that will make it more difficult, i.e. work requirements for government aid.

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  2. The typical American response has been to welcome more immigrants, particularly young ones. That’s currently an unpopular position.

    It has been obvious for some time that we were headed in this direction (as it pertains to population growth). And immigration is a huge and easy solution and yet are currently shooting ourselves in the foot and appear poised to keep up firing.

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  3. Scott says:

    On the other hand, my niece gave birth to a girl yesterday and my son and daughter in law are due in June. But to emphasize a point, they are all in their 30s.

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  4. Lounsbury says:

    But below-replacement-rate births is highly problematic in a society with a burgeoning retiree population that expects to draw from the public treasury for decades.

    As Japan demonstrates in real world econometric data, it is not per se problematic if said country is highly industrialized and is willing to invest in enabling infrastructure.

    Economically the decline in working age population will (all things being equal, which of course is never the case, but as the point of departure in analysis), be structurally beneficial for labour although as there will be – as one sees in Japan – an increasing structural shift to automation and robotization.

    Backwards looking natalist view on economic growth in the face of AI development (perhaps less AI in reality than highly advanced semi-autonomous automation) are almost certain to be rendered nonsense.

    Now given the White backlash against losing ethnic identity as majority, it strikes me as fundamentally unrealistic to expect significant revision on voting majority views on immigration (and in a different cultural context, one can look both to Japan but also even Western Europe).

    An evolution of ongoing contested immigration and increasing automatic via AI enabled robotics, with export of low-margin trade-exposed jobs to developing countries is more or less economically inevitable unless 1930s style trade barriers go up (a scenario one can not exclude although God help us if it occurs).

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  5. KM says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Biden’s childcare proposal would be a huge boost in making people feel more comfortable with starting or growing their families. Being able to pay for a child is a major decision in going forward with a pregnancy and finding someone / somewhere safe and affordable to care for that child while you work is essential. It’s the economy, stupid – can’t find a good daycare and can’t pay for it if you do. Quality and oversight cost money and it’s easily equal to a rent payment per child.

    However, to the religious right it means giving woman support while they decide to not be trapped as homemakers. After all, if the woman is home she’s naturally the one to care for the children amirite? Why would you need this subsidy unless you were planning to heartlessly abandoning your proscribed gender role and joining the rat race for fun and profit? That’s why they’re screaming about it “destroying the family unit”.

    Conservatives keep trying to drag Americans back to a mythic ideal time without putting the reasons for it being ideal back into play. Want single income families again? Raise wages to be commensurate with the earning power they would have been in the 50’s. Want someone to stay home with the kids instead of daycare? Support childcare subsidies or paternal leave so that it’s financially viable. Need people to buy a home for the white picket fence 2.5 kid dream? Deal with student loans and wage stagnation.

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  6. mattbernius says:

    The typical American response has been to welcome more immigrants, particularly young ones.

    Going to be that guy because I woke up with a bee in my bonnet this morning, but I think this should read:

    “The typical American response has been to allow more immigrants, particularly young ones, into the county.”

    I think when we look past the patina, the amount those folks were actually “welcomed” (i.e. accepted for who they are and where they came from, vs seen as additional raw labor) has varied pretty significantly throughout the years (and where they were coming from).

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  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @KM: Indeed. But all those solutions cost money. More specifically they cost my money (in this case, “my” being owners of capital).

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  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Scott:

    Congrats on having a new generation!

    @KM:

    Actually R and religious right positions are simpler than that, they simply oppose what Dems suggest. There are conservatives that know that their position is self defeating, Romney’s child proposal is realistic and recently Ross Douthat has made family support a hobby horse and he isn’t the only conservative pundit that has come around to the position that government needs to assist families.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    There was a time when kids were a good deal, economically: cheap farm hands raised by unpaid women. Kids now are a terrible deal, hugely costly in terms of time and money, a drain. Maybe government support will change that but there’s evidence to the contrary: Sweden’s birth rate is 1.76 – far below replacement.

    Educated women with access to birth control just don’t much like having children, and I don’t think there’s much government can do about it. It is a worldwide phenomenon across all sorts of cultures. When woman have an alternative they have fewer kids. So rather than waste time and resources attempting to reverse what is irreversible, the better idea might be to look to how we adapt to declining populations.

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  10. grumpy realist says:

    You can’t treat women having kids as an expensive hobby they should support entirely on their own and then turn around and whine that women are marching with their feet on this matter.

    I wonder how much of the “anything that women do isn’t worth much” is coming into play as well. Kid-raising is one of those things that can be excruciatingly boring and mind-numbing while at the same time being absolutely essential. How many times can you play “eensy-weensy spider” with your toddler before your mind fries itself? And now a lot of the mechanisms by which families used to spread out the boredom (having older kids pitch in with the taking care of younger ones, grandma and grandpa taking care of the little ones, mom having other work to do on the farm) are considered Bad Childhood Raising Practices, hard with a nuclear family which has to move every few years for employment reasons, or just not how the present economy is structured.

    If raising kids was as important as the Religious Right keeps claiming it is, they’d be pushing for a lot more support for whoever’s the main child-raiser–or insist that businesses stop treating employees as robots able to put out 60 work weeks.

    I also suspect we’ll get another moaning essay from Rod Dreher of TAC with absolutely no practical suggestions. He’ll flog his latest book; the peanut gallery will tell him how marvellous he is, and nothing will be done.

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  11. Jen says:
  12. Jim Satterfield says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Check out the reality of what MMT says instead of the myths about it and you’ll see some solutions.

  13. Chip Daniels says:

    I can’t help but wonder how much this is connected to the overall long term decline in crime rates.

    As in, the decline of crime reflects a lower amount of general social disorder- fewer juvenile delinquents, fewer people who can’t conform to laws and norms; Fewer incidences of reckless unprotected sex and resulting unwanted pregnancies, resulting in fewer neglected or abused children.

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  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Chip Daniels:

    Personally, I think the most likely explanation in the hypothesis that the main driving factor was the phase out of leaded gasoline:
    1.) It’s know chronic lead exposure during childhood makes people less intelligent, more violent, and more impulsive: all things that correlate with increased criminal behavior
    2.) Unlike a lot of other hypotheses, it explains both why crime is declining and why it went up to begin with
    3.) The decline in rates of crime is not just a US phenomenon, but a global one, and the leaded gas hypothesis explains why this occurs across societies with massively different demographic and social structures
    4.) It still holds on subgroups (e.g. if you break up each state’s crime data, the ones that phased it out sooner started going down sooner and ones that phased it out later started going down later)
    5.) Even today, there’s a strong correlation between the level of crime in a neighborhood and the level of residual lead dust

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  15. Mimai says:

    An alternative perspective on the pros/cons of having children.

    Yes, he’s a libertarian. No, this isn’t a libertarian book.

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  16. Gustopher says:

    Having met children, I understand why people would not want to have them.

    (I appear to be missing the gene that makes children cute. I also think cats are cuter than kittens.)

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  17. KM says:

    One thing not being discussed is the idea that the current generation does not hold to the idea that they must be replaced, that the population must always stay stable or grow. Childless adults are always getting guilt-tripped with “but who will look after you when you get older?” or “don’t you think it’s selfish to not carry on your legacy?” The idea that children – your own mind you, not just in general – are essentially immortality for you is increasingly growing hollow in a world where a digital footprint is forever. We can tell our stories ourselves and not have to depend on future generations to remember us personally.

    The youth are more aware that more people means more stress on the planet and a bad time for everybody. It might not be a major factor but having a child in a world where the climate’s going to hell in their lifetime (let alone the kids’) is going to have an impact. The more it becomes apparent that having a child means facing difficult times, the less likely it is to happen. With climate change causing economic disruptions as well, the problem compounds.

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  18. Kathy says:

    Far be it from me to give the nativist jerks ideas, but one reason America no longer sees much immigration from Europe, is precisely the lack of a safety net and social welfare programs. Yes the taxes are lower and some people might make more money, but many would wind up paying more for childcare, healthcare, etc., and might have less in retirement.

    There are many other reasons, like the high murder rate compared to Europe, not all driven by gun violence, but the one above is a big one.

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  19. Jen says:

    One of the biggest risks of a declining population and (eventually) declining numbers in the workforce is that even if you’re able to augment that work with automation, it becomes incredibly hard to maintain solvency in Social Security. The current ratio of workers per retiree is 2.8:1 (in 1950 it was around 16:1). By 2040 that number will be 2.1:1.

    Add to that a low rate of retirement savings, and we’re headed toward a class of starving seniors fairly soon, because we aren’t really relying on Congress to fix this in any way that benefits actual people, are we?

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  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Jen:

    One way to address the loss of payroll taxes as workers are replaced by robots, is to adopt Bill Gates’ suggestion that there should be an annual tax on the robots that would become the new payroll tax. It would also have the benefit of slowing automation.

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  21. Jen says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I like that. And, for policymakers, the way to frame this is that companies will need to contribute social security taxes on the robots that are replacing the people–just like they pay on their human workers.

    If not, it’s going to get drowned in standard “businesses pay too many taxes!” gibberish. Cut to the chase.

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  22. Nightcrawler says:

    @grumpy realist:

    You can’t treat women having kids as an expensive hobby they should support entirely on their own and then turn around and whine that women are marching with their feet on this matter.

    I was about to say something similar. Conservatives are famous for touting “Don’t breed ’em if you can’t feed ’em” and “Those who don’t work, don’t eat.”

    Yet now that Americans are choosing to do exactly those things — spending more time working and not having children unless they’re certain they can afford them — they’re unhappy.

    Can’t have this both ways.

    I think the drop in birth rates could be a good thing, being as we’re not going to need anywhere near as many workers as we do now very soon. This just arrived in my inbox this morning:

    Up to 12.5 million Americans could struggle to find work in 2030 due to a growing skills gap

    And no, these displaced workers won’t be retail cashiers, restaurant workers, and “low-skilled” types that conservatives love hate on:

    The role of humans in the economy will shift dramatically in all three models due to the increasing adoption of automation, artificial intelligence and other technologies. This suggests there will be an impact on millions of jobs across blue-collar and white-collar roles in areas such as administrative and office support, according to the report. COVID-19 hastened this effect in 2020 by accelerating technology adoption, the report said.

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  23. Nightcrawler says:

    @KM:

    In addition to never being in a situation where I could afford to have children, my primary motivation for being childfree was that I didn’t want to bring anyone else into all of this.

    My birthmother had no idea what she was bringing me into; she couldn’t possibly have known how bad things would get. By the time I reached adulthood, it was crystal-clear that things would get really, really bad, and I acted on that knowledge accordingly. Others are obviously doing the same.

    If the GOP wrests back the White House in 2024, it’s game over for everyone. If I’m still alive then, I’ll be among the millions who suffer a horrific fate, but at least I didn’t force anyone else to suffer it. I’ll die with a clear conscience, knowing I did what I could, however small.

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  24. Lounsbury says:

    @Jim Satterfield: He can save his time rather than reading the Leftist wish for a magic pony nonsense that is Modern Monetary Theory.

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes this observation promoted extensively by Kevin Drum has great merit as it is very hard to escape the broad and indeed near-perfect alignment between multi-country data factors (of varying statistical quality) and dates for the elimination of leaded fuel. Were it a handful of countries… but the alignment is astonishing across both developed and developing countries. One should not fall into mono-causality trap of course (as too often commentary does) but the science behind the biological effects of lead and the econometric data broadly across multiple countries – continents – cultures rather make it hard to deny a very strong causality input.

    @Nightcrawler: Well yes quite – it’s really quite incoherent the vacillating between hand-wringing about declining natality and hand-wringing about the upcoming job apocalypse from AI enabled automation.

    While one should be doubtful about AI Utopia assertions, it is without a doubt that in wealthy countries with a good infrastructure base and well-functioning (in reasonable terms) capital markets, there is going to be a strong substitution of Capital (AI enabled automation) for lower-value (as a price point for chargeability to consumer/user) labour. This is 100% inevitable even under reasonable AI-skeptical forecasting.

    To be a parent in a developed country, it is a very rational economic decision to either forgo a family, or restrict to 1 or 2 in which one can heavily invest one’s money – but as critically and not something government can easily change, one’s time. I know of no successful model of government support in a developed country that has moved the needle in a meaningful manner in this economic calculation that also goes to internal economy of time. Ergo Michael’s comment@Michael Reynolds: on not wasting time and resources on trying to change this but rather adapt is spot on.

    @Jen: It only becomes difficult to maintain solvency in retirement funding if one remains entirely wedded to your peculiar formula and approach to funding the same. Otherwise, so long as the USA obtains reasonable levels of economic growth (and above all increasing per-capita GDP growth) barring some apocalyptic die-off, you are fine.

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Or we could tax the whole nut instead of the less than 30% that we do for the top tier earners. The beauty is that we don’t need to get the match from the capital side at this level. We can cap the employer’s total if we want to.

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  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Lounsbury: I was going to note that I don’t buy MMT and I come by my cynicism honestly, but now I don’t have to. Thanks! 😀

  27. Jen says:

    @Lounsbury: I’m not sure exactly what you’re trying to get at here…of course, the formula is the problem. Our current workforce funds the retirement system for current retirees, and the ratio of workers:retiree has changed dramatically. That’s the problem. With a declining population and/or a change in the workforce, that formula becomes even more of a mess, and no one has the political will to correct it.

    We won’t be “fine” unless it’s fixed; the Social Security system is on track to start paying out less than 100% sometime around 2037, when the trust fund will be depleted. Most Americans haven’t saved anywhere near enough for retirement. We are headed to a bit of a train wreck down the line.

  28. JKB says:

    Welcome to modernity. Fewer children with higher investment in the individual child’s education, lower risk of loss of child to disease or injury, more wealth transfer over the child’s lifetime.

    Unlikely an event like this from around 1900:

    At about that time one of my students, interested in the early history of New York, happened to call upon an old woman living in a shanty midway between these two schools. She was an old inhabitant, and one of the early roadways that the student was hunting had passed near her house. In conversation with the woman he learned that she had had five children, all of whom had been taken from her some years before, within a fortnight, by scarlet fever; and that since then she had been living alone. When he remarked that she must feel lonesome at times, tears came to her eyes, and she replied, “Sometimes.” As he was leaving she thanked him for his call and remarked that she seldom had any visitors; she added that, if some one would drop in now and then, either to talk or to read to her, she would greatly appreciate it; her eyes had so failed that she could no longer read for herself.

    –How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry

    Not only less risk of losing a single child, much less 5 children, but also a better life for the widow mother whose eyesight is failing.

    Besides stress on the welfare state’s dependence on a continuing source of younger workers to extract from, the real issue is, so far, no economist has a clue how economics works without a continuous growth in consumers, via children born or populations added to the consumer economy. It was a good century run with it going wide after WWII, but will it continue? Or will the political forces we see today succeed in shifting humanity back to feudalism?

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB: Why is it that I find myself believing that you are rooting for feudalism so that you can say “See? I told you guys, but NOOOOOOOOOO, you wouldn’t listen, would you?”

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  30. Kurtz says:

    @Lounsbury:

    He can save his time rather than reading the Leftist wish for a magic pony nonsense that is Modern Monetary Theory.

    As opposed to the Right Wing wish for magic pony nonsense that there is this mystical perfectly efficient market that can order society in such a way as to maximize freedom and liberty for all?

    And no, I’m not advocating for MMT in particular. But Jim has a point here in at least one sense: if economists want to act as if they’re doing physics they must also be willing to accept that their models are likely wrong in the end and the ones they think cannot be correct may be closer to reality than the ones they hold dear.

    I’m sure you know this, but MMT isn’t exactly new either. It’s also not completely wrong. You know who have been demonstrably wrong in the past? The inflation chicken littles and the ones arguing for precipitory tax structures.

  31. Hal_10000 says:

    For all the talk about women’s choices and freedom and so on, there is one fact that jumps out at me: women actually want more children than they’re having: 2.7 as opposed to 1.8. Maybe we should be asking ourselves why they’re not having the kids they want.

    In addition to what is mentioned above, I think one big factor is that we have established a traditional “male” career path as the norm: go to school, get a job, build seniority, then have kids. This simply doesn’t work for a lot of women who then find themselves in their mid-30’s and running out of time. We need a cultural shift to accept more people — men and women — having children at younger ages and building their careers later.

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  32. Lounsbury says:

    @Kurtz:

    As opposed to the Right Wing wish for magic pony nonsense that there is this mystical perfectly efficient market that can order society in such a way as to maximize freedom and liberty for all?

    American libertarianism is of zero interest to me, and hardly necessary to evoke except as an unlearned strawman response by someone who doesn’t know modern economics.

    The proverbial perfectly efficient market theory beloved of the Chicago School is of course indeed the Right version of the MMT – both are ideological Just So Stories.

  33. Lounsbury says:

    @Jen: It is really very simple. You change the funding mechanism taking any one of the many developed country models that present you alternatives to your queer depression era structure. So long as you are achieving real GDP growth, you really do not have a real economic problem. You many have a political problem arising from American provincialism and blinkeredness, but not an economic one again so long as you are achieving real GDP growth on a per capita basis.

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