Crying out for more babies

I don’t want to alarm any readers unnecessarily, but sometimes you have to just take the message straight. So here it is:

A turning point has occurred in the life of the human race. The sustainability of humankind’s oldest institution, the family—the fount of fertility, nurturance, and human capital—is now an open question. On current trends, we face a world of rapidly aging and declining populations, of few children—many of them without the benefit of siblings and a stable, two-parent home—of lonely seniors living on meager public support, of cultural and economic stagnation.

That’s the opening to an essay titled, “The Empty Cradle,” by Phillip Longman and others, which led to an interview with NPR’s Lynne Neary last week. She apparently didn’t realize she was dealing with an end-of-days type (even though he wrote a book with the same name as this article in 2004), and naively thought the subject was just the fiscal challenges of aging populations.

So after he described the rising challenge, she naively instigated this exchange:

NEARY: So, what is the solution? Certainly it’s not just go back to have large families, is it?

LONGMAN: Right. Well, we find in much of the developing world people who say they wish they could have children but they can’t find a way because it’s seen as too expensive. So in some ways this is almost a human rights problem…

His answer became incoherent, as for some reason he didn’t seem to want to tell her the solutions he proposed in the essay. These do mostly boil down to just going back to having large families. (That and promoting marriage.) So we get recommendations like this:

RESPECT THE ROLE OF RELIGION AS A PRONATAL FORCE. Childlessness and small families are increasingly common among secularists. Meanwhile, in Europe and the Americas, as well as in Israel, the rest of the Middle East, and beyond, there is a strong correlation between adherence to orthodox Christian, Islamic, or Judaic religious values and larger, stable families.

This point is illustrated with this graph:

I don’t think it’s breaking news that religious people usually have more children than “secularists.” But I haven’t heard the suggestion that governments promote religion as a way to boost populations. But then again, I didn’t know this either:

Even in the remotest corners of the globe, when television is introduced, birth rates soon fall. This is particularly easy to see in Brazil. … Today, the number of hours a Brazilian woman spends watching domestically produced telenovelas strongly predicts how many children she will have.

Hence, recommendation #9: “Clean up the culture.”

Longman’s essay is in a collection published by a group right-wing institutes, including W. Bradford Wilcox’s National Marriage Project, and apparently funded in this case by the Bradley Foundation, known for supporting outfits like the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, and the neoconservative militarist movement.*

Fertility dividends

Anyway, I have written before about what came to be known among demographers as “lowest-low fertility,” and the economic pressures that are both its cause and consequence. It is a tricky issue. As a non-expert, my reaction is that governments trying to get people to have more children is a fool’s errand — the way I view trying to promote marriage. It seems much more practical to look for ways to arrange resources to support populations with fewer children and more old people.

And environmentally, I thought it was good news that population growth is slowing globally. Admittedly, though, this somewhat perplexing argument by Longman et al. for population growth as a solution to the environmental crisis had somehow never occurred to me:

The more brains are available to work on natural-resource challenges, the sooner someone will come up with the idea that provides a solution.

Anyway, so what are the economic implications of population decline? This figure shows how lower fertility rates are generally associated with higher national incomes, from World Bank data.

Low fertility is usually an issue in relatively high-income countries. The average income in the countries with fertility below the replacement level of 2.1 is about $22,000 per person, while above that fertility level the average income is about $4,000 per person. But the figure also shows a lot of variation — all the rich countries have low fertility, but some relatively poor countries do, too.

As Longman et al. correctly point out, falling birth rates create a “demographic dividend,” as a smaller population of children provides opportunities for a generation of adults to invest in other things (such as higher education), and to spend time on other things (such as careers for women). But a few decades later those productive middle-aged adults grow into a big bubble of retirees, and that small group of children becomes an undersized group of prime-age workers, threatening to drag down the society’s total income. This potentially creates a fiscal crunch, as pension and medical costs rise relative to earnings.

But that’s not inevitable. If you take advantage of that period when there are fewer children — but not yet too many retirees — it is possible to reap a “second demographic dividend.” This is described in several papers by Andrew Mason and Ronald Lee, including this one, in which they write:

Given appropriate policy formulation, population aging will yield a second dividend. The same demographic changes that lead to low support ratios (high dependency ratios) in the future, namely few children and longer life, also both raise capital per worker other things equal, and additionally create a powerful incentive for individuals to accumulate assets to provide for old age. The result can be a period of rapid growth in per capita income. The rapid pace of asset accumulation is also transitory. However, per capita assets and income stabilize at a level that is permanently higher. In this respect, the second dividend persists whereas the first dividend is transitory.

They use simulations to work this out, which are quite interesting. It seems to boil down to two factors: increased investment in skills, education and experience; and increased savings (either individual or through taxation) motivated by the need to care for more retirees. I like this solution more than trying to get people to have more children.

* Aside: History is interesting this way. I used to associate right-wing foundations in America with funding for anti-population-growth intellectuals, as when the racist Pioneer Fund supported not only eugenics-type sociobiology but also Garrett Hardin’s “tough love” ecology — paraphrasing: “too many people in poor countries, aid and immigration will only drag out the problem, better just let them die.” I don’t know which of these tendencies is more active today.

I also don’t know much about Longman, but I did notice that in 2006 he predicted a renaissance for patriarchy, because conservatives have more children than progressives. He wrote in USA Today:

[progressives having fewer children] is a pattern found throughout the world, and it augers a far more conservative future — one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback, if only by default. Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families.

Is fertility ready to rebound?

Prediction is cheap.

After about five years of increasing fertility rates, by this time last year I was reviewing evidence that the recession had turned that around, leading to a steep decline in births. This update shows that trend was very real – but a review of future events suggests fertility is ready to rebound.

Using fertility rate numbers collected from the CDC by my colleague Yong Cai, and adding a “preliminary” 2009 report, and an even newer “provisional” 2010 report, here is the updated trend:

By this spring we had more evidence that supported a role for the recession specifically in this turnaround. Based on the timing, on the steeper drop among couples that already have some children, and the pattern across states, I joined in the Pew Research Center’s conclusion that the decline was linked to the recession.

Where do we go from here?

But this data story is slow to evolve. Even now, August 2011, the CDC has released only provisional numbers from June 2010. A year ago I used some Google search terms to try to read closer to the present. Now that we have Google Correlate I think I can do a better job.

Unfortunately, the time series for fertility rates is monthly, while Google Correlate likes weekly numbers. So I decided to use the state variation to identify fertility-related searches, and then feed that back into the time trends using Google Trends. I took the state fertility rates from 2009 and asked Google for the 100 search terms most closely correlated with those rates across states. The result had a convincing level of face validity — that is, lots of the searches were about pregnancy and births. The #1 correlated term was “pregnancy workout,” with a correlation of .88 out of 1.0 (and #2 was “baby diarrhea”). In fact, 12 of the top 100 terms included references to pregnancy.

To develop the time series, I had to use those that were common enough to appear in Google Trends consistently back to 2007, so I settled on pregnancy growth, pregnancy tips, and pregnancy contractions (see the results here). Here’s the pattern for state fertility rates (left) and searches for pregnancy growth:

Averaging those three search term trends, back to 2007, gives a trend like this:

It’s not definite, but that could be a bottom in the second half of 2010 — after the end of the currently-available fertility rates from CDC. Does it line up with the fertility trend for the period when the two series overlap? It’s not bad. Here are the searchers (blue line) and the fertility trend (red line), which are correlated with each other at .32:

So, in conclusion, I predict we will see a fertility rebound at least in the first half of 2011. I don’t know why else we would be seeing an increase in people doing these searches (though if the Google numbers are not reliable, all bets are off).


Unbelievably, this post also involves Brad Wilcox. I had no intention of even mentioning him today, but I feel ethically obligated to report that – after doing this analysis – I Googled “fertility predictions demography” just to make sure someone else didn’t already do this (remember, kids, after doing your research it’s always good to check and see if it was necessary in the first place). What I came up with was something called “Demographic Intelligence, LLC,” which has as its web home a WordPress page, the “About” page of which says (I’m not making this up):

Professor [W. Bradford] Wilcox founded Demographic Intelligence to provide companies, governments, and NGOs with the ability to anticipate shifts in U.S. fertility, to learn what types of American adults are most likely to be having children, and to understand the fundamental economic, social, and cultural drivers of fertility in the U.S.

This limited liability company, which according to its LinkedIn profile has an employee, has issued at least one press release claiming “about 98 percent” accuracy with their prediction model. And according to this model, which carries a TM after its name, the fertility drop has bottomed out (which is, obviously, a “good sign for the juvenile products industry”).

You have my word that I made my prediction before reading this press release. But different minds apparently think alike, at least when it comes to seeing the bottom of the fertility trough.

Children beget happiness, eventually

Hang in there, parents.

Why do people have children? The more appropriate question, probably, is why they don’t — since most people throughout history have had children whether they had a reason to or not. But, true to the modern practice of justifying one’s major family decisions with a social science survey, potential parents might now like to consult a recent article by Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskyla (and reported in the NY Times) entitled, “A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility.”

Using data from the World Values Survey — more than 200,000 people in 86 countries interviewed over 25 years — they show that having more children generally makes people less happy. But children do make parents happier — only after about age 40. Here’s the pattern:

Above age 40, people with 1-to-3 children are the happiest. The question was, “taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy, or not at all happy?” In the analysis, they control for sex, socioeconomic status, income, marital status, the year of the survey and the country (to avoid cultural tendencies to interpret the question differently). In the end, the authors believe the happiness effect results mostly from the support provided by children to their parents. They conclude:

…the association between happiness and fertility evolves from negative to neutral to positive above age 40, and is strongest among those who are likely to benefit most from support from children in their later years. This age gradient is evident for both sexes, at all income levels, for those in good and bad health, for those who are in partnerships and those who are not, for all welfare regimes, at all levels of fertility, and for our period of study from 1981 to 2005. In addition, analyses by welfare regime show that the negative fertility/happiness link at young adult ages is weakest in countries with high public support for families, and that the positive association at ages above 40 is strongest in countries where old-age support depends mostly on the family. These results suggest that children are a long-term investment in well-being, and they highlight the importance of both the life-cycle stage and macro contexts to the happiness/fertility association.

So, I guess the implication is that if we improve social means of support so that old people don’t need children to take care of them, children will provide less boost to happiness. But aren’t family relationships built on love and voluntary choices supposed to be more happiness-producing than those squeezed out of economic and social necessity?

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.

Putting teen birth rates on the maps

The latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is out, with a report on teen birth rates in the U.S. The press release announces, “U.S. Teen Birth Rate Fell to Record Low in 2009.” (The report has information about birth control, virginity, and sex education as well.)

The CDC’s vital signs pamphlet still calls the rates “unacceptably high,” and notes they are “up to 9 times higher than in most other developed countries.”* Within the U.S. we have about a 4-to-1 ratio in teen birth rates between the states with highest and lowest rates, as you can see from this map:

Birth rates for teens aged 15-19 years in the US in 2009. Birth rates among those teens, by state, were lowest in the Northeast and upper Midwest, and highest across the southern states. Rates ranged from <20.0 per 1,000 population in three states to >60.0 in four states. The national rate was 39.1 in 2009.

Teen birth rates are the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15-19.

For comparison, using the U.N. Demographic Yearbook, I made a map of Europe using the same color scale as the CDC’s state map, though I had to add a few categories. (If you don’t know which countries are which, why not take a little time to learn them?)

Light blue, 31-39; White, 16-29; Pink, 10-16; Red, 0-10; Black, unavailable.

You can see the high rates in the Eastern European countries of Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, with teen birth rates in the range of our l0w-middle states (like California). The high-middle European countries — including Britain, Ireland, the Baltics and some Central European countries — are comparable to our lowest-rates states (New England, etc.). Then the rest of Europe is off the U.S. chart, down to 4.3 in Switzerland.

Addendum: The UN has a longer list of country teen birth rates here. The US ranks 95th out of 207 countries for 2007 on that list.

*It’s a little strange that teen births are considered a problem by definition, even though some of these teens are married, which should make their births officially not a problem.

Children rarely born

Back from a short visit to Taipei, Taiwan.

After listening to an interesting, speculative presentation by Larry Wu at the conference, I have been thinking about what it means to have “lowest-low” fertility rates. Or, why is this woman so happy?

Source: She was happy to let me take their picture.

It turns out Taiwan has the lowest current fertility  (total fertility rate)  in the world (excluding city-states): 1.14. That means, if current rates persist, the average woman will bear 1.14 children. This figure shows, roughly, the highest- and lowest-fertility countries in the major regions (matched by color), with the U.S. and world rates highlighted.

Source: My graph from CIA data.

Anything under 2, more or less, and the population will shrink. With these low-low rates, however, the population will shrink and age dramatically and rapidly, within a generation.

You have heard about the aging of the Baby Boom in the USA, and the problems we will have paying for Social Security and Medicare as the population ages. But we’ve got nothing on the lowest-lows.

This population pyramid shows the number of people projected to be at each age in the U.S. in 2050:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Even with our aging population, we will still have more infants than 65-year-olds, under this scenario. With a population pyramid, you can compare two populations by looking at their shape, even if they are on different scales. So compare the U.S. with where Taiwan is headed:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

In Taiwan, the pyramid is heading toward inversion. 65-year-olds will outnumber infants more than 2-to-1 by 2050. More importantly, healthy young workers will be way outnumbered by aging seniors.

There is a debate over whether Asia’s low-low fertility is driven by the same factor’s Europe’s, which include cultural shifts toward individualism and emotional self-fulfillment, away from old-fashioned procreative family values.

In the case of China, it looks like economics drive the shift. Many people assume the low fertility rates (about 1.5 nationally) are the result of the “one-child policy,” begun in the 1980s. But there are two problems with that assumption. First, most of China’s fertility decline from the high levels of the past occurred before 1980s. And second, even where Chinese families are permitted to have more than one child, few do. As Zheng and colleagues recently found in Jiangsu province:

…the extremely low fertility—total fertility rate (TFR) of close to 1.0—that currently prevails in this area of China is explained largely by factors other than the government’s birth-control policy. Among couples who are eligible under the current policy to have two children, the majority say that they have voluntarily chosen to have only one child, and they cite economic considerations as the primary reasons for this choice. A fundamental shift appears to have occurred, such that government control is no longer necessary to maintain low fertility.

In these low-fertility contexts, everyone needs everyone else to have children.  Maybe the nice woman in the photo, presumably the child’s grandmother, was just in a good mood and a super nice person (which seems likely). But she might also be counting her blessing.

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.

Baby boom talk

Who’s afraid of the Baby Boom?

I was a guest on the State of Things on North Carolina Public Radio (WUNC) this afternoon with Frank Stasio. The other guests were the social historian David Zonderman from NC State, author/blogger Beverly Mahone and poet Grey Brown.

From the show’s blurb:

If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you’re part of the single largest cohort in American history. Technically, the Baby Boom Generation is defined demographically, but culturally it’s defined by sweeping social change. During their youth, the Baby Boomers saw civil rights to fruition, gave birth to the women’s movement and popularized the environmental movement. They also invented the nonprofit model and spiked the divorce rate. As they age, the Baby Boomers stress every entitlement program from Social Security to Medicare.

Going into the show, I decided my emphasis would be on inequality, insecurity and instability for members of the baby boom generation. Splicing together two separate comments I made here is the story I told:

When we study generations in sociology we talk about this concept of “cohorts,” people who experienced historical events at a certain age. So, everybody may have lived through the Vietnam War, but only some people were of a certain age to have it affect them in a certain way, and that imprints them in a way that stays with them for the rest of their lives.

That period of prosperity that came to an end in the early 70s ushered in a major transition that lasted to the present — but for 20 years it was very rapid — from manufacturing to service, and this huge growth of white-collar and service-oriented jobs, and the bifurcation of good service jobs and bad service jobs, that left the old manufacturing people in the dust, pulled a lot of women into the labor force, and introduced an era of insecurity and instability and growing inequality that we have not left behind yet.

But it imprinted this group: So if you were born in 1960, graduated college in 1982, and entered the labor force in the middle of an awful recession, then managed to pull some kind of career together, got married and divorced, by the 90s it was time to be downsized already for the first time, you’re 40 in 2000, and it’s time for the dot-com bubble, you’re out of your job again, and here you are ready for your retirement, finally, you’ve been left in your own 401(k), having to put together your own pension, and of course now that’s in the tank and your house isn’t worth anything. So that insecurity and instability is really imprinted this group. We talk about the 60s, and civil rights and antiwar, and great music and everything, but that’s seeming like a long time ago now for people who are looking at retirement.

My preparation for the show included this report from the Urban Institute about Baby Boomers and retirement; and this excellent chapter by M. E. Hughes and Angela O’Rand, which covers all things demographic with the Baby Boom cohorts, mostly using the 2000 Census (it’s also included in this book).

You can listen to the show here.