Baby Bust? U.S. Birth Rate Is Lowest Since 1976

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The U.S. has a population that's increasingly grayer, with a declining rate of births and people living longer lives. Wikimedia

You've heard of the baby boom. Well, these days, the U.S. seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a report titled "Births: Provisional Data for 2017," which made headlines with some startling numbers. The number of births in the U.S. last year was 3,853,472, down 2 percent from 2016 and the fewest in the past three decades. And the total fertility rate, or TFR — the number of children that the average woman theoretically would have during her lifetime, based upon current age-specific fertility rates — dropped to 1.76, the lowest since 1976.


For comparison, let's consider the height of the baby boom in 1957. That year, 4.3 million children were born, and the TFR reached 3.76, another historical high, and slightly more than twice the rate today.

The declining U.S. birth and fertility rates have some experts puzzled. They took a plunge during the massive recession of a decade ago, which is what usually happens during recessions, when people tend to be so worried about their financial prospects that they postpone having kids. But even though the economy gradually recovered, the birth and fertility rates kept going down. As Pew Research Center senior researcher Gretchen Livingston explained in this National Public Radio interview, it may be that the recession's lingering impacts combined with longer-term trends of Americans delaying having kids so that they can finish their educations and get going in their careers. But this paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests another, more ominous possibility — that widespread lead pollution in the atmosphere and soil may be impairing fertility.

But whatever the cause, the 1.76 TFR is now significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1 that would be needed over the long term to maintain a stable U.S. population. But even if we continue at that low level, the effects of declining U.S. fertility won't be felt right away, explains Marian Starkey, senior director of publications for Population Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates stabilizing the world's population by improving access to family planning. Because there are still a large number of women in their reproductive years, "even if they're having fewer children, the population will continue to grow for a generation or so," she says.

This U.S. Census Bureau report projects that growth will start to slow after 2030, but that the U.S. population will still increase from its current level of nearly 328 million to 400 million by 2058. But with fewer babies, it's going to be a country that's increasingly grayer, especially with people living longer lives. By 2060, people age 65 and older — currently around 15 percent of the population — will account for about 25 percent of Americans.

That could create some serious problems. Without young people coming into the workforce, the economy could be hit with labor shortages despite increasing automation, as this 2018 Bain & Company report describes. And with fewer workers paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, the entitlement programs that many Americans depend upon to survive in old age will come under increasing stress.

But Dana P. Goldman, director of the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics at the University of Southern California, said that the problem isn't an insurmountable one.

"The demographic crisis is not as severe for the U.S. as it is in Europe and Asia," explained Goldman. "It's a political problem here." In this recent article in The Hill, a political newspaper, Goldman and colleagues advocated making changes now in social programs, such as raising the age at which retirees become eligible both for early and full Social Security benefits by a couple of years, to cope with the demographic shift. "We can make modest changes now," Goldman said. "Otherwise, we're going to have to make drastic changes later."

Others, such as journalist Ezra Klein, have argued that raising the eligibility age for Social Security would hurt lower-income workers, who often are unable to continue working at physically demanding labor and don't have enough retirement savings to fall back upon.