What explains America’s mysterious baby bust?
The Economist – November 24, 2018
In some ways, the Atlantic Ocean seems unusually wide at the moment. Polls by
the Pew Research Center show that western Europeans take an increasingly dim
view of America, and not just its president. On the other side of the ocean,
conservatives think that a clinching argument against universal health care is to
call it European. Yet in other, more intimate, ways the two continents appear to be
converging. American families are increasingly hard to distinguish from European
Soon after the great recession hit America, in 2007, the birth rate began to fall.
Many people lost their jobs or their homes, which hardly put them in a procreative
mood. But in the past few years the economy has bounced back—and births
continue to drop. America’s total fertility rate, which can be thought of as the
number of children the average woman will bear, has fallen from 2.12 to 1.77. It is
now almost exactly the same as England’s rate, and well below that of France.
Although getting into Harvard will be a little easier as a result, this trend is bad for
America in the long run. A smaller working-age population makes Social Security
(public pensions) less affordable and means the national debt is carried on fewer
shoulders. America could admit more immigrants to compensate, but politicians
seem loathe to allow that. The baby bust also strikes a blow to American
exceptionalism. Until recently, it looked as though pro-natalist policies such as
generous parental leave and subsidized nurseries could be left to those godless
Europeans. In America, faith and family values would ensure a good supply of
What changed? One possibility is that the drop is little more than a mathematical
quirk. The total fertility rate is calculated by adding up the proportions of women
in each year of life who had a baby in the previous year. It is affected by changes in
birth timing. Suppose that all American women have exactly two children. If a
cohort of women move to have those children later, the fertility rate will
temporarily fall below two. This happened in the late 1970s, when the rate dipped
to 1.74 before recovering.
To some extent, history is probably repeating itself. In 2017 the mean age of a first
time mother was 27, up from 25 in 2007. The teenage birth rate has halved in the
past ten years—something that Power to Decide, a campaign group, attributes to
less sex and better contraception. Colleen Murray, its senior science officer, says
that Obamacare has made long-acting contraceptives like IUDs available to more
young women. The trend of Americans giving birth at ever older ages could run for
a while. In Europe, women’s mean age at first birth is 29. In Japan it is 31.
Still, comparisons with Europe and Japan are not exactly reassuring—both
countries have smaller families than America. And with every passing year the drop
in American fertility seems less temporary. Some data suggest that people have
come to desire small families. The large National Survey of Family Growth shows
that 48% of American women with one child expect not to have a second.
Some religious conservatives fear that a broad cultural shift is under way.
According to Gallup, a pollster, the share of Americans who never go to church has
risen from 10% to 27% since 2000. That could be connected to falling fertility.
Churches tend to be in favor of children—more so than the other places where
people hang out on the weekend, such as gyms and bars. But it is hard to
disentangle cause from effect. What is clearer is that America’s fertility rate is being
pulled down by two specifc groups of people: Hispanics and urbanites.
Hispanic women still have more children, beginning at a younger age, than
non-Hispanic whites, blacks or Asians. But their fertility rate is falling exceptionally
quickly. Between 2007 and 2017 it dropped from three to two, pulling down the
national average. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a think
tank, points out that the recession hit them hard. Many Hispanics worked in the
construction business, which collapsed, and lost their own homes to foreclosure.
Hispanics are also increasingly American. Two-thirds were born in the country,
and the proportion is rising because immigration from Latin America has slumped.
They have probably adopted American small-family norms.
The fertility rate has fallen more sharply in large cities than in smaller cities or
rural areas. Rents and prices have soared, making it harder to afford an
extra bedroom. Lots of properties are being built in city centers—but many of these
are tiny flats in towers. In 2006 only 27% of newly completed apartments had fewer
than two bedrooms. In 2017 fully 48% did.
Nir Shoshani of NR Investments, a property developer in Miami, says some of this
change is driven by demography. People are staying single and childless for longer,
so there is more demand for small flats. But the towers are also rising because
politicians and officials want them to rise. As in other cities, Miami’s zoning laws
have changed to favor little boxes. A recent reform allows builders to create homes
of just 275 square feet.