Whither the Culture of Life? Birth Rate Hit Its Lowest Level Yet

The United States is below population replacement levels due to a variety of cultural, economic, and racial factors, including the birth collapse among Latinos.

(photo: SmudgeChris/shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — If the ultimate referendum on Americans’ openness to life is the national birth rate, the latest results are in and they are not pretty. New federal data shows births at their lowest rate on record in the U.S., as the pregnancy rate continues its downward slump since the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that the general fertility rate in the U.S. had unexpectedly fallen to 58.9 births per 1,000 women, age 15-44, in the first quarter of 2016. The general fertility rate in the first quarter of 2015 had been 60 births per 1,000 women.  

Furthermore, the CDC’s data showed that births dropped for women 15-19 years old, and women in their 20s. However, births ticked up for women in their 30s and 40s, indicating that women were delaying childbearing into their later years.

Overall, the baby bust appears to be continuing its current 10-year trend, despite indications that the economy has improved in part since the worst of the recession that began under President George W. Bush.

Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia professor of sociology and director of UVA’s National Marriage Project, told the Register that the Great Recession is still having an effect on U.S. fertility. He added that it has exaggerated a more cautious approach to marriage and family formation.

“In many important respects, it has made them gun-shy about having kids,” he said. In this respect, concerns over the affordability of rentals and single-family homes, and soaring college debt come to bear.

The total fertility rate now hovers around 1.8 children per woman over her lifetime — far below the 2.1 children per woman that demographers say a nation needs to keep its population stable.


Cultural Changes

However, Wilcox pointed out that when fertility rates crashed in the 1970s (also bad economic years), there were sharp, dramatic cultural changes as well. At the time, sexual mores in the U.S. shifted toward acceptance of cohabitation, contraception, abortion, and no-fault divorce. A similar cultural shift may be at work in the 2010s as well: this time to a more secular, adolescent worldview.

“Younger adults are less religious today than were previous generations, and they’re more hesitant to embrace transitions into adulthood,” he said.

According to Pew Research, only 41% of Millennials believe religion is very important, and just 27% attend religious services at least weekly. More than a third of Millennials consider themselves “religiously unaffiliated,” a demographic group known as the “nones.”

The collapse of fertility rates is actually a worldwide phenomenon, and a manifestation of a globalized flight away from marriage’s traditional place in culture, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer and political economist at the American Enterprise Institute. He told the Register that the U.S. for a number of years had been an anomaly in the global trend of declining fertility rates, “skirting replacement fertility” levels until the Great Recession struck in 2007.

Historically, the United States has had an immigration rate high enough to increase its population even when the birth rate drops below replacement level. Consequently the situation is not yet like Japan, where low fertility rates (currently at 1.4 children per woman) and a highly restrictive immigration policy have combined to cause severe population decline. Japan’s population is expected to shrink to 64 million by 2082, down from 128 million in 2010.

All racial demographics in the U.S. have seen a decline in pregnancies since 2007. According to another set of CDC data, the steepest decline was felt in the Hispanic population, where the birth rate collapsed from 97.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 2007 to 72.9 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44 by 2013.

A New Normal?

The question for demographers is: Have Americans come to a “new normal” or are they still in “economic shock,” despite the assurances that the economy is better?

“For now there is evidence of both,” Eberstadt said. He pointed out that majority public opinion in poll after poll has found that the general mood of the country is that the recession is still ongoing, despite the verdict of economists. At the same time, religious attachment correlates with larger family size, and a majority of Millennials (persons who reached adulthood around the year 2000) do not value religion as previous generations.

“We’re going to have to wait a few more years to sort it out, because people can’t put off having children forever,” he said. Eventually “a baby postponed becomes a baby forgone.”

However, Eberstadt added that the trends are not necessarily irreversible. History has plenty of examples of religious and moral revivals, as well as religious and moral collapses, that have changed the course of their societies’ future.

Wilcox sees a link between the trends away from marriage and childbearing: ““There’s a certain lack of hope people have when it comes to marriage and parenthood that is driving this,” he said.


Pope Francis

Pope Francis, perhaps, is the leading global religious figure to have raised the alarm about the collapse of birth rates, particularly in Europe.

The Holy Father had convened two synods of bishops in 2014 and 2015 to discuss the family, resulting in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

“The negative impact on the social order is clear, as seen in the demographic crisis, in the difficulty of raising children, in a hesitancy to welcome new life, in a tendency to see older persons as a burden, and in an increase of emotional problems and outbreaks of violence,” the Pope said. “The State has the responsibility to pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family.”

Helen Alvaré, a Catholic law professor at George Mason University and a participant at the Synods on the Family, told the Register that in the U.S., “People view children as a feared cost” — either to their own economic situation or to their pursuit of happiness and freedom.

A major contributor to this fear may be the social isolation of American nuclear families from the traditional extended family network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and close family friends.

Alvaré noted from her own observations that having the assistance of the extended family help couples overcome their own worries about children.

“I do think if people were able to rely on, or felt confident about relying on their extended family, there would be less fear,” she said.

But many nuclear families are isolated from the extended family’s help because their jobs required them to move away.

Alvaré noted that more than 40% of children are born into non-marital relationships, and studies have shown that grandparents and other extended family members will not invest in cohabitations as in marriages, because they are not sure the father is going to stick around.

Divorce has also ruptured many extended family networks, and made children fearful of putting their own children through the pain of divorce.


Need for an Authentic Pro-Family Agenda

The problem the U.S. has, Alvaré added, is that there is no real agenda being advanced that would strengthen marriage and childbearing. The Catholic Church, she added, should have age-appropriate marriage and family life education in its schools from the first year on. But too often, it is not the case.

Among many of the nation’s leading pro-life organizations, the agenda is heavily focused on restricting abortion, and not on advancing pro-natal policies that would encourage people to form families and have their children.

Alvaré said there are a variety of steps that could be made part of such an agenda, including changes in the tax code, the earned income tax credit, and paid family leave policies, so mothers can take care of their children after they are born without fear of losing their jobs. Finding ways to increase family-wages is also essential, Alvaré added, explaining that studies show women are averse to forming families with men who do not have the means to support them and future children. But getting there, she said, requires redirecting the national focus regarding marriage and family issues from the small percentage of “same-sex marriage” back to “the vast majority that are struggling to attain this ideal situation for children.”  

“There’s a lack of private and public policies to say to families, ‘It’s okay, having children, taking care of them, staying with them and everything is the most important bulwark of a good society,’” she said. “But it works economically, it works religiously, and it works practically.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter. 


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