Don't blame American women for fewer births

Don't blame American women for fewer births
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Some officials, economists, journalists, demographers and others are having kittens because American women are not having enough babies to replace the country’s existing population. 

With a fertility rate of 1.7 births per woman in 2019, a new low for the past 35 years, America’s fertility is well below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. 

Implosion, crash, baby bust, demographic time bomb, depopulation, baby crisis, demographic disaster and national emergency are just a few of the terms being used to dramatize the fact that American women are choosing to have fewer births than deemed desirable by various others, who are typically men. 

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Fewer births, it is argued, will lead to stunting America’s economic growth and cultural turmoil. Another pro-natalist argument stresses the need to maintain the country’s international leadership. If the U.S. is to continue leading the world, they contend, America’s women need to have more babies.

It is important to bear in mind that below replacement fertility is not unique to American women. In virtually all developed countries and in many developing countries, including Brazil, Chile, China, Columbia, Costa Rica, Singapore and Thailand, women are having fewer births than needed for replacement level fertility.  

In addition, the fertility rates in many countries in 2018 are considerably lower than America’s 1.7 births per woman, including South Korea (1.0), Italy and Spain (1.3), Japan and Poland (1.4) and Canada and Hungary (1.5). Furthermore, the populations of some countries, including China, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Russia and South Korea, have been below the replacement fertility rates for decades.

Various explanations have been offered for why women are having fewer births. Those explanations include later and less marriage postponed childbearing, employment, higher education, careers, divorce and breakups, economic hardships, lack of paid parental leave, uncertain future, abortion, male-dominated family structure, decline of traditional family values, lack of a suitable partner, lifestyle choices, single-parent families, personal needs, domestic burdens, high costs of childrearing and lack of child care. 

While the relevance and importance of those various explanations are open for discussion and further research, there is little disagreement about America’s birth rate. The nation’s fertility rate of 1.7 births per woman is nearly a half child less than the replacement level. 

In 2018, approximately 15 percent of American women in their mid-40s were childless. Also, among mothers aged 40 to 44 years in 2016 about 62 percent had one or two births, while 38 percent had three of more births. A half century ago, it was the reverse, as two-thirds of mothers had three or more births and one-third had one to two births.

Also, more recently, contrary to some initial thinking about a baby boom, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to contribute to a further decline in the number of U.S. births. Preliminary data indicate that America could have as many 500,000 fewer babies born in 2021 — a 13 percent drop from 2019. 

Many environmentalists and others do not consider below replacement fertility and a slowing down in the growth of the U.S. population as matters needing remedy. Others, however, are calling for American women to have more babies so that the country’s fertility rate would return at least to the replacement level, thereby contributing to  ensuring the continued growth of the U.S. population and its economy. It is unlikely that American women will choose to have more births simply to help ensure the continued growth of the nation’s population and economy. 

For those wishing to have fertility increase to the replacement level, are there policies or programs they could establish that would persuade American women to have more births? Providing subsidized child care and assistance to American families with children is one proposal aimed at raising America’s low birth rate. 

There’s little doubt that many American families would welcome subsidized child care and financial assistance for child rearing. However, based on the experiences of European and East Asian countries, child care and financial assistance to families with children, while certainly helpful, is not likely to raise U.S. fertility back to replacement levels of the past.

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America’s current below replacement fertility is not a sudden or transitory phenomenon. Declining fertility is a long term secular trend in the U.S that has been taking place over many years. America’s below replacement fertility is likely to continue well into the foreseeable future and that expectation is reflected in the fertility assumptions of national and international population projections. 

Also, importantly, the low fertility rate of the U.S. is part of the increasing worldwide trend of below replacement fertility. In 1960 only a handful of countries, representing nearly 4 percent of the world’s population, experienced below replacement fertility. Today nearly half of the world’s population lives in a country where fertility is below the replacement level. And by mid-century, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to be residing in countries where national fertility rates are below the replacement level. 

America needs to recognize, plan and prepare for the important demographic consequences of below replacement fertility. By 2025, for example, the U.S. is expected to experience the historic reversal of its population age structure, i.e., more elderly above age 65 years than children below age 15 years. Increasingly, the aging of America’s population will have significant social, economic and political repercussions, including for the labor force, elections, politics, economic growth, education, Social Security, health care and retirement.

The demographic message for America with respect to its below replacement fertility should be clear: men and women are making reproductive decisions on the basis of their circumstances, beliefs and expectations, not for the country’s economy, political power or age structure. So, don’t blame American women for choosing fewer births.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."