Births Slump to Record Low in CDC Data

The newly released findings indicate a lack of confidence in the future as women under 30 have had fewer babies for the seventh consecutive year.

(photo: Shutterstock image)

WASHINGTON — Despite polls showing the U.S. tilting in a more pro-life direction, when it comes to the nation’s openness to life, the birthrate may be the one poll that matters most. According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, births in the United States have slid down over the past seven years to a record low.

Newly released 2013 data from the CDC show close to 380,000 fewer births last year than in 2007. The birthrate has dropped 9% from 4.3 million babies born in 2007 to 3.9 million born in 2013.

The nation’s general fertility rate is now at a record low of 62.5 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. That rate will generate 1.86 children for each fertile woman, well below the total fertility rate of 2.1 children required to maintain a stable population level without immigration.

Jonathan Last, senior writer at the Weekly Standard and author of the book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, noted that, since the 1990s, the United States has relied on Hispanic immigrants to keep its population at replacement levels. Now, that is coming to an end.

“If you run our fertility numbers [since 1975], minus the foreign-born people, our numbers look a lot more like Europe,” he said.

The majority non-Hispanic white population had 181,000 fewer babies in 2013 than 2007, when 2.3 million babies were born. The demographic group also has the lowest birthrate at 58.7 births per 1,000 women, a decline of 2.3 points since 2007.

Non-Hispanic blacks also suffered a baby decline: They had close to 44,000 fewer babies in 2013 than 2007, as their birthrate dropped from 71.4 to 64.6 births per 1,000 women.

The ethnic group to experience the steepest decline was Hispanics, who went from a birthrate of 97.4 births per 1,000 women in the 15-44 age group to 72.9. To put it another way, Hispanics had 161,000 fewer babies in 2013 than in 2007. That year, Hispanics had 1.06 million babies.

“Immigrants, as you move through the generations: Their fertility rushes back to the mean fairly quickly,” Last said.

While in the short term, U.S. demography has been helped by immigration, “the problem is that, whatever is going on in the West that is pushing fertility rates down everywhere — whether you are in Poland or Ireland or Italy or the United States — it is immensely powerful, and it is acting on everyone. We even see that with immigrants.”

The long-term problem, Last said, is that relying on immigrants’ fertility to support the aging population is not sustainable either. One demographic model indicates the United States would need 19 million fresh immigrants a year by 2050 to keep its fertility level at replacement.

“We can’t do that because we can’t build the infrastructure fast enough to accommodate all those people.”

Fewer Mothers Under 30

The CDC’s data shows two big trends between 1990 and 2013: Women under 30 — those in their prime childbearing years — are now having fewer babies, and women over 30 are having more. For example, the birthrate for 15- to 19-year-olds dropped from 59.9 births per 1,000 women in 1990 to 26.5 by 2013. The birthrate for women 20-24 dropped from 116.5 in 1990 to 80.7 by 2013. Women 25-29 had a 120.2 birthrate in 1990, but by 2013, it dropped to 105.5.

The fertility of these age groups sharply declined after 2007, when the economic crisis hit, and they have not rebounded.

“This recession appears to have hit baby-making particularly hard,” said Last. “Some people thought it would come back, and now it hasn’t, and they’re wondering if this is the new normal.”

According to the CDC data, for women under 30, each year has been a year of fewer births. From 2007-2013, women in the 15-19 and 20-24 age groups have seen their birth rates drop 20 births per 1,000 women, while women 25-29 have 13 fewer births per 1,000.

The only groups whose birthrates rebounded from the recession were older fertile women. Those aged 30-34 are now having more babies than women between 20-24, thanks to a birthrate of 98.0 in 2013. The birthrate in women 35-39 also had a slight slowdown during the recession, but by 2013, hit a new high of 49.3. Women 40-44, meanwhile, have shot up from a birthrate of 5.5 in 1990 to 10.4 in 2013.


Negative Consequences

Last said that the recession does not explain the whole picture. A mix of cultural and economic factors could be at play. Last indicated that the single best predictor for openness to life in the United States was frequency of church attendance.

But the consequences are not pretty for the future of Social Security, Medicare and the welfare state. Without children as future taxpayers, “You wind up with less consumption in everything except for health care, and you wind up with a bigger strain on the state because you have fewer people paying the taxes for the entitlements you promised, which means you have to raise further, which then makes it harder for people in childbearing years to have kids,” he said. “You wind up in this vicious cycle, and whether you realize it or not, every debate we have about entitlements in this country is really a debate about demographics.”

“If you’re going to have this entitlement system, you have to have enough kids; otherwise, it doesn’t work.”

Sociologist Anne Hendershott, a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of The Politics of Abortion, said that history shows that societies that “don’t encourage children tend to fall apart.”

But the clearest modern-day example, she said, is Japan, where the birth dearth has created a generation of aging adults, who are relying on Perfect Polly robot birds and cat-petting cafés for companionship.

“Giving birth implies a hope in the future,” she said. “We don’t have that” as a society.

However, she noted that committed Christians “are having babies,” even though their families may not be in the best financial straits.

“There is a belief that the human condition is worth experiencing,” she said.

According to Hendershott, contraception is key to understanding the West’s demographic decline because it weaves into the population “this idea that we can control everything,” from birth to life to death. She noted that major companies such as Apple and Facebook are paying women to freeze their eggs and delay childbearing in order to focus on their careers.

“Companies don’t want their valued employees to get pregnant.”


Evangelizing for Life

The CDC’s birthrate data and its recent report on abortion numbers hitting a new low indicate that “pregnancies are down,” according to Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“There’s a rampant individualism that is less open to sharing our lives with the demands of children,” he said.

Doerflinger said that better tax and financial policies could help send a message to parents that they have support for having another child. Workplace policies could be more flexible to accommodate women’s childbearing capacities, but the economic incentives are not likely to be decisive, he said. The simple reason is that, regardless of the incentives, it always costs more money to have a child than not to have one.

While secularism and individualism are fueling demographic decline, Doerflinger said, “Faith in God is an antidote.”

“Faith makes us feel part of something greater than ourselves, where we are more willing to be open to contributing to society and more open to new lives being ready to take our place in society.”

Doerflinger said the Church has opportunities to strengthen its evangelization of the family and promotion of “children as a gift” and “each human life as being uniquely precious” at the parish level.

At many parishes, he has encountered parents who tell him there are ministries for youth, singles and seniors, but not for them.

“They feel there is not as much support as there could be for parents with children, for families,” he said. “That’s something many parishes could look more closely into.”

Some parishes make it easy for people to find a babysitter or provide respite care to parents who have been taking care of older family members.

Doerflinger said it ultimately boils down to evangelizing on “the unique gift of the child.”

“We’re very much about that, and it’s something that goes beyond the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception, which is also needed, but [it’s] simply about why we are supposed to be open to children, and we should welcome children.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.