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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Should the US be Worried About Its Birth Rate?

In 1936, in the midst of the Depression, the birth rate dropped to replacement level in the United States (even in the era before modern contraception), and Enid Charles published a book on "The Twilight of Parenthood." Of course, the birth rate did bounce back--well above what she might expected--and parenthood survived. However, as the baby boom gave way to the baby bust, people started getting worried again and in 1989 Ben Wattenberg published a widely read book on "The Birth Dearth." Since that time the total fertility in this country has hovered right around replacement level, sometimes a bit above and sometimes a bit below. But that hasn't kept people from worrying about it. In 2004 Phillip Longman published "The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to do About it." This theme was converted into a highly-publicized video called "The Demographic Winter" where it became obvious that the threat was that fertility rates were declining in richer countries, but not so much in the developed countries. 

I mention this bit of history because the birthrate worry surfaced yet again yesterday in an Op-Ed by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, which he titled "More babies, please." He was responding to a report put out by Pew Research Center, which digested birth data recently published by the Centers for Disease Control. The headline of the Pew report was "U.S. Birth Rate Falls to a Record Low; Decline Is Greatest Among Immigrants." Part of the problem, though, is how the birth rate is defined. Both CDC and Pew calculated the birth rate as births per 1,000 women aged 15-44. This obviously does not control for differences in the age distribution within these ages. If, on the other hand, we look at the total fertility rate, which does control for the age structure, we find that the TFR actually bottomed out in 1976 and has been, if anything, generally on an upward curve since then, as these data from the Population Reference Bureau illustrate. Even the CDC's report was much more cautious than the Pew report, noting that "the rate of decline has slowed from 2010 through June 2012." Furthermore, the more detailed birth data from 2011 show that the only age group for whom the birth rate dropped was ages 20-24. At all older ages the birth rate either increased or stayed the same. This sounds to me like a pattern of postponement, but not necessarily a reason to believe that the sky is falling in.

It is interesting to me that Enid Charles appears to have been the last woman (76 years ago) to have worried in the popular press about a low birth rate. Since then it seems that the only people who write scary stuff about the low birth rate are white men. Why is that? 

1 comment:

  1. That last question made me chuckle. I have a hunch about the answer, but I'll save that for another chat at another time.

    And excellent point about TFR - it's still (almost) at replacement, we just have fewer teen pregnancies and a somewhat older population. That's hardly reason to start ringing alarm bells. (Besides, according to Transition Theory, isn't replacement-level fertility just a sign of a developed nation?)