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New Statistics on U.S. Births Are Much Less Alarming than News Stories About Those Statistics

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released preliminary statistics on U.S. births for 2009. The latest numbers showed a 2.6% drop in the number of live births compared with 2008. This follows a 1.6% decline in the number of births in 2008 compared with the all-time peak number of births recorded in 2007.

Many news organizations treated the latest fertility statistics with excessive alarm. According to the headline on an AP story appearing in USA Today, “Recession May Have Pushed U.S. Birth Rate to a New Low.” The second sentence of the story told readers “The 2009 birth rate also set a record: lowest in a century.” Related stories appeared in a number of newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post.

The statistics behind the latest numbers are a lot less alarming than the headlines. Most of our concern about fertility centers on the question of whether the number of American births is large enough to maintain the size of the population. The U.S. population certainly continued to grow in 2009, when the estimated number of births exceeded the number of deaths by 1.71 million. It will require a very large drop in births below the current level before the annual number of deaths exceeds the number of births.

In the long run the size of the U.S. population depends on the “total fertility rate” and the rate of net immigration into the country. The total fertility rate is an estimate of the total number of babies that would be born to a typical woman at current birth rates if she were to survive until age 45. The most recent year for which we have an estimate of the total fertility rate is 2008. In that year the total U.S. fertility rate was 2.1, almost exactly the rate needed in the long run for the population to remain stable, even without any net immigration. The CDC’s latest statistics on births indicate the total fertility rate probably fell somewhat below 2.1 in 2009. Nonetheless, when final statistics become available it is likely 2009’s total fertility rate will be well above the all-time low rate attained in the mid-1970s when it fell below 1.75. That rate was far below the total fertility rate needed to maintain a stable U.S. population in the long run.

Another meaningful indicator of the birth rate is the “general fertility rate,” which is the annual number of live births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. According to the CDC’s latest estimates, the general fertility rate in 2009 was 66.8, about 2.3% below the rate in 2008. However, this rate is nowhere near the lowest fertility rate we have seen in recent years. In fact, in 17 of the 29 years before 2009 the general fertility rate was below 66.8.

Reporters are correct in suggesting that the severe recession has contributed to the decline in U.S. births. But we have had recessions in earlier periods, and the fertility rate in several of those recessions has dipped below the rate we saw last year. Reporters are also wrong in suggesting that fertility has declined to an alarmingly low level. Even with the dip in fertility in 2008 and 2009, U.S. fertility remains higher than it is in nearly all other wealthy countries. In the European Union, for example, the total fertility rate is about 1.5, about a quarter below the rate in the United States. The U.S. fertility rate is still close to the level needed to ensure a slowly growing population for many years into the future. When combined with continuing high rates of immigration into the United States, our current birth rate means that the U.S. working-age population will continue to increase for several more decades.

The severity of the recession has encouraged some Americans to postpone child-bearing. It has not, however, reduced the U.S. birth rate below levels we have seen in the past.