Looking for just the facts? Here they are.
The United States is facing an accelerating downward trend in our national birth rate, resulting in the slowest population growth since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The recent Great Recession of the 2000s made the decline even more pronounced, with the birth rate for women in their 20s falling 28% since 2007. It is rising among women in their 30s and 40s, but not enough to offset babies not being born to 20-somethings whose fertility is generally the highest. Our birth rate is below replacement level for native-born Americans.
North Carolina is not immune to this trend. Our birth rate’s most recent peak was in 2007 when 131,000 bundles of joy arrived to North Carolina families. Post Great Recession in 2013, only 119,000 babes arrived, a 9% decline. According to Carolina Demography at UNC-CH, that is about 20 fewer births each year for every 1000 women under 30.
Several western European nations including Spain, Italy, Greece and Luxembourg have birth rates well under 2 per woman of childbearing age, well below the replacement rate. Asian nations including China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are also facing declining birth rates. The implications for all of them, and increasingly for us, as well are clear and stark. The United States is now an “aging economy,” with more people 65 and older than people younger than 15. Senior benefits such as Social Security and Medicare pose significant financial burdens on workers, generally younger people, who will struggle to meet senior needs. In addition, seniors consume fewer goods, which limits growth in domestic markets. And since wealth is more concentrated among older people, wealth disparity also grows.
So, what is causing slowing birth rates?
Every woman has her own story, of course, but there are trends, made possible by reliable contraception available for less than a century. Increasingly, women are delaying motherhood until they complete their educations and are settled in careers, often meaning well in to their 30s and sometimes 40s. This has been true for decades for upper middle class and highly educated women, and it is now the case for women throughout the nation, especially in urban areas with employment opportunities and thriving economies.
Young women also worry about affording children, a kind of parental sticker shock. They report concerns about the high costs of housing and child care, sometimes piled atop existing student debt. They also acknowledge that children, however wanted and loved, can and do derail careers that have taken years to prepare for and build. They understand that this happens to mothers far more often than it happens to fathers.
Other declining birth rate nations are approaching the problem with various financial incentives — one-time payments for a new baby — a so-called baby bonus, monthly stipends for children, free school lunches, generous maternal and paternal leaves, subsidized day care and tax incentives. Hungary exempts women with 4 or more children from paying incomes taxes for their lifetimes. Some of this may be helping, but no European country has reached a replacement birth rate. The only nations that have are emerging economies, many in Africa.
The United States sports a poor record of family support, both financially and in safety net services. Our attitude has been “these are your children, so care for them yourselves.” That is true, of course, but we maintain that stance at considerable risk to all of us. Like European countries and some Asian nations, we must find ways to support young families, lest we find ourselves with too few of them to drive and maintain our economic health.