Fertile decline

The numbers are starting to add up.

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum blamed abortion for the lack of young workers to pay for Social Security: “Well, a third of of all the young people in America are not in America today because of abortion — because one-in-three pregnancies end in abortion.” If he was right about that, he should consider blaming someone for the recession.

The latest data brief from the National Center for Health Statistics offers the strongest evidence yet that the recession has driven birth rates down.

Here are three ways the evidence points toward the recession decreasing Americans’ production of children. First, the timing: 2009 saw the largest single-year drop in fertility rates since the early 1970s. Here is my graph of annual change in the number of live births per 1,000 women ages 15-44 (sometimes called the “general fertility rate”):

The decline is very broad — affecting all race-ethnic groups, almost all states, and all ages of women (except the oldest). However, I’m taken by a second pattern, which shows the declines steepest at the higher birth orders — so the people who are most affected are those who already have kids, which fits the idea of families embracing the new austerity in place of the old three-is-the-new-two gestalt that seems so mid-2000s now:

I wrote a longer post on this last fall, in which I summarized the argument that this recession was serious business for birth rates:

If you put together busted real estate values and increasing education costs, collapsing state services increasing insecurity, and tightened access to credit, then the resulting “era of thrift” in the culture of consumption might include fewer children among both rich and poor. There is room for such a change, as a very serious “correction” would still only take the U.S. down to the level of its economic peers.

At the time I quoted this 2010 Pew report, which concluded: “Birth rates in the United States began to decline in 2008 after rising to their highest level in two decades, and the decrease appears to be linked to the recession”. In it, the analysts compared home prices and per capita income changes in states with changes in fertility, which showed a consistent pattern of greater birth declines in harder-hit states.

With the new data new birth data by state, and state unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I can extend that now, and I think it’s a pretty strong third point: fertility fell more where the recession hit harder. The state-level correlation between changing fertility rates in 2007-2009 and changing unemployment rates in 2006-2008 is .48 on a scale of 0 to 1. (I figured it made sense to take unemployment rates from the year previous.) Here is the pattern:

It remains to be seen whether this is a small correction, or even just a delay, in birth rates on account of the economic crisis. Compared with the other rich countries, the U.S. still has high fertility rates. And in the long run that might be a more important issue than the recent fluctuations.

Health inequality compendium

The CDC releases a slew of inequality trends.

Many people will find the new report from the Centers from Disease Control very helpful. It’s called CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report — United States, 2011, and it covers everything from inadequate and unhealthy housing to preterm birth by race/ethnicity:

I previously reported national comparisons showing the U.S. bringing up the rear on this health indicator, and discussed the evidence for the role of obesity. This table was nice because it broke out the Latino groups, which we often don’t get (next step, Asians).

Anyway, very nice to see CDC putting resources into the collection and dissemination of inequality indicators. This report should be especially useful to teachers who want to include health in their discussion of inequality, but aren’t specialists in health outcomes (like me).

Receding birth rates: milestone or tipping point?

Seems like only 2009 that everyone was wondering why birth rates were rising.

“Forget the Dow and the GDP. Here’s the latest economic indicator: The U.S. birth rate has fallen to its lowest level in at least a century as many people apparently decided they couldn’t afford more mouths to feed.” In this opening, AP’s Marilynn Marchione is going too far.

Still, birth rates have fallen for two straight years. And the number of children born, per 1,000 people in the population, reached its lowest level ever recorded in the U.S. in 2009:

Source: My graph from various sources, including most recently this from NCHS.

So how could it be that less than two years ago I was asking, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?”

For one thing, that “birth rate” — births per 1,000 population — is strongly affected by what’s going on among non-childbearing people, especially their recent practice of living longer, which weighs down the denominator of that rate, so to speak.

If you are interested in the childbearing decisions people make, and how those decisions are affected by the recession, it’s better to look at what is often called the “general fertility rate,” which is the number of births for every 1,000 women in the ages 15-44. By that measure, we’ve still had two straight years of decline — which could be due to the recession — but the rate remains higher than it was through most of the 1990s.

So my question about America’s high fertility is still germane. In fact, by an even more exact measure — the “total fertility rate,” which estimates how many children each woman will bear in her lifetime — the U.S. has just about the highest fertility in the rich world, at 2.1.

Source: My chart from Population Reference Bureau data.

The explanations I preferred in 2009 may still apply: (a) immigration of healthy young go-getters from higher-fertility places; (b) the new math for some middle-class parents, by which three is the new two; (c) a rebound in teen birth rates; (d) rising birth rates among single women, and; (e) neo-traditionalist pro-natalism, which is part of the stalled progress toward gender equality.


So, is it true that the recession has changed the birth calculus, raising the specter of “more mouths to feed“? That AP article cited evidence that economics were crimping family expansion plans, especially among those who are economically insecure, and quoted the highly expert Andrew Cherlin, pursuing that logic:

When the economy is bad and people are uncomfortable about their financial future, they tend to postpone having children. We saw that in the Great Depression the 1930s and we’re seeing that in the Great Recession today.

As early as January 2009, Carl Haub at the Population Reference Bureau raised the possibility that fertility would fall in a serious recession. And Heather Hopkins at Hitwise tracked baby term searches on the Internet through early 2009, finding evidence of declining interest in “baby names,” “pregnancy,” and “maternity clothes.”

Then in April, Gretchen Livingston and D’Vera Cohn at the Pew Research Center reported: “U.S. Birth Rate Decline Linked to Recession.” Based on early data from 25 states, they wrote:

Strong associations were found between the magnitude of state-level birth rate change from 2007 to 2008 and the magnitude the previous year of per capita income change and housing price change. Strong associations also were found between the magnitude of state-level birth rate change from 2007 to 2008, and the previous year’s change in gross domestic product by state, as well as in first claims for unemployment benefits. Analysis also found a strong association between the magnitude of birth rate change from 2007-2008 and a state’s housing foreclosure rate in 2007. No correlation was found with change in state-level employment or unemployment rates.

At the time, I plotted the change in birth rates against change in per capita income for those states, and it looked pretty good for the economy’s role:

Now the fertility data runs through 2009. I haven’t looked at it by state, but a closer look at the monthly trends (made possible for me by my colleague Yong Cai) — here smoothed with a 12-month moving average — shows a drop starting in mid-2008, as well as a drop in late-2000 or so, at the start of the last recession. Oddly, in both of those cases the drop appears a little too early, especially when one considers that births usually occur at least 6 months after someone decides to feed another mouth.

To look at that timing more closely, here is the same data, but charted as 12-month change (e.g., the difference between January 2009 and January 2008). This looks like strong evidence that birth rates are lower during the last two recessions, but still a little early — before the rapid rise in unemployment, for example.

To look for evidence that people are doing less baby planning, I did an updated Google search trend. Averaging the relative frequency of searches for “baby names,” “maternity clothes,” and “baby shower,” — and again taking the 12-month change — it looks like a drop occurs in early- to mid-2007, and continues to the present (those few positive months in 2009 are 12-month changes from months that were negative, so the whole trend is downward after 2007).

Source: My analysis of Google search trends. You can do your own, and read about the data, here.

Since births take a while from decision to mouth-feeding, and then even longer for the data to come out, it’s hard to use them as a leading economic indicator. But this Google thing has potential. Anyways…

Milestone, or tipping point?

Reaching a data point such as the lowest-birth-rate-ever is a milestone. It’s not a tipping point unless it leads to accelerating change in the same direction. Sure, a recession might produce delayed fertility, and some births foregone as a result (as well as more divorces and child abuse). But invoking the Great Depression is serious — just look at the chunk taken out of the fertility trend above.

Could this be sewius? I could see an argument to make that prediction. If you put together busted real estate values and increasing education costs, collapsing state services increasing insecurity, and tightened access to credit, then the resulting “era of thrift” in the culture of consumption might include fewer children among both rich and poor. There is room for such a change, as a very serious “correction” would still only take the U.S. down to the level of its economic peers.

Obesity, birth and health

The NYTimes reports that obesity is increasingly complicating pregnancy and delivery for U.S. women, and hospitals are slowly adjusting. One obvious correlation is between obesity and the odds of Cesarean-section deliveries:.

Obesity rates are likely to be one of the factors behind the U.S.’s anomalous upward trend in maternal mortality in recent decades, and its abysmal ranking in preterm births and infant mortality. Obesity, along with other health problems, increases the odds of preterm delivery, much of which is by C-section — the subject of a recent Congressional hearing. However, although obesity rates are higher for Blacks than for Whites, preterm delivery rates have risen in the last 20 years for all groups except Blacks (despite tapering downward in the last several years):

Although obesity is a proximate cause of some health problems, it is also a consequence of other health conditions, poor diet, poverty, and so on. Obesity does not cause all the problems with which it is correlated, even when the association is strong, as with C-sections.

Recession stalls birth rates

More evidence that the recession is having large-scale effects on family life.

The birth rate dropped in the U.S. from 2007 to 2008, for all age groups of women except those 40-44. So why is the Centers for Disease Control press release headlined, “Teen Birth Rates Drop in 2008 Following a Two-Year Increase”?

In case the significance of the news was not clear, Stephanie Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics told the Washington Post, “This is good news.” Really?

The longer term trends — which never seem to figure in the breathless reporting of each new data release — are still clear: overall, U.S. women are having more children than they did in the 1970s, teenagers are having a smaller portion of them, and single women are having a rising proportion of them. Nothing in the last few years has changed this story.

However, there is something interesting in the latest data, and it’s not necessarily good news. According to a nice analysis by the Pew Research Center, including my old friend Gretchen Livingston, this most recent birth rate decline seems to be driven by the recession.

I took the liberty of adapting one of their tables into the following chart, which shows the relationship between the 2007-2008 change in per-capita income and concomitant change in the birth rate (births per 1,000 women 15-44). The larger states are shown with bigger dots, and the trend line is plotted, showing a strong association:

Chances are this will not lead to a large decline in lifetime fertility for today’s families — more likely a stall that most women will make up for down the road (which could be why 40-44s are the one group that doesn’t show a decline — less time for timing). For the same reasons, ironically, divorces may be taking a breather as well.

Like fertility and divorce, the increase in family violence during the recession might not be enough to overcome long term trends. But as we start to wrap our heads around the long term consequences of this crisis, which outstrip those of recent business cycles, family changes are an important part of the story.