Last year the nation’s birthrate hit a record low, falling to 62 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Last year 3.9 million babies were born in this nation of about 325 million people.
The downward trend since 2007 - when 4.3 million babies were born - was sparked by the Great Recession. The drop in birth rate came along with high unemployment and economic pain, a trend that has repeated itself over history.
But what has caught demographers’ attention is that the birthrate has not rebounded, even as the economy has recovered since the recession ended in June 2009.
In fact, an estimated 4.1 million fewer babies were born between 2007 and 2016 than would have been anticipated given pre-recession fertility rates, said Kenneth M. Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
“The only thing that is comparable to this is during the Great Depression,” said Johnson, who authored an analysis of the new data. “Whether it’s temporary or permanent I don’t know, but either way it has implications for the American economy.”
The good news in the data is birthrates for women in their teens “has dropped quite dramatically,” he said. “But the fact that the number of births to women in their 20s, particularly in their younger 20s, declined raises questions.”
He and other experts say that women reaching child-bearing age are either delaying childbirth or deciding to not have kids because of a combination of factors. These women grew up watching their families or neighbors struggle in the recession, perhaps losing jobs and homes, leaving them feeling unsettled in the economic recovery that has left many people behind in parts of the country.
And many of young women are saddled with huge college debt or not able to find good-paying jobs.
“They’re very nervous about their ability to become financially secure,” said Corey Seemiller, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Wright State University.
Seemiller said Generation Z, the oldest of whom are turning 22 this year, may be more likely to hold off on having children until they pay off students loans and have jobs they are comfortable in.
Millennials may choose to not have children out of concern about over-population or may delay childbirth out of belief they can offer a better future to their children if they wait to be more financially secure, said Marc Clauson, professor of history and law at Cedarville University.
The birthrate declined across all ethnic groups, with Hispanic women aged 20-24 having 38 percent fewer babies between 2007 and 2015, the last year for which ethnic and racial data was available, Johnson said. For that age group, Asian women had 33 percent fewer babies, black births dropped 26 percent and white births declined 24 percent, he said.
That occurred as the actual number of women of childbearing age has gone up since 2007.
Johnson said a decline in births hits first in the baby-supply economy, the slew of food, diapers, toys and any number of consumer items people buy once they have kids. It will show up in elementary classrooms, a replay of the shrinking class sizes that occurred as Baby Boomers - the last of whom were born in 1964 - finished their educations, Clauson said.
He said it will then show up in colleges, already struggling to attract students, which will find the competition for fewer students is even more fierce.
As these babies of the Great Recession aftermath reach adulthood there will be fewer people buying houses and cars, both big engines of the economy. There will also be fewer people to pay taxes, contribute to Social Security and Medicare and to fill job slots.
That workforce problem, said Clauson, could exacerbate the debate over immigration. He said European countries have long had birth rates of half or less than the U.S., a trend that followed those nation’s increasing economic health.
“One reason Europeans have been very keen on immigration is they don’t have the number of people they need in the workforce to employ in various activities, so they have to fill their population up from outside,” Clauson said.
That has created a backlash from those who want to keep immigrants out, he said.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump ran on a platform of tightening the borders with a southern wall and deporting undocumented immigrants. Already Western farmers are complaining that they can’t find people willing to work their fields, Clauson said.
In Ohio, businesses are also complaining that they can’t find people with the right skills to fill jobs.
“The biggest barrier that we are hearing about is failure of potential employees to pass a drug test,” said Nichol Smith, assistant director of the Clark County Department of Job and Family Services.
If the birth rate decline continues she said it will mean her department will need to do more of what they are already doing, including engaging with people at a younger age, focusing on adaptive training for people who have lost long-time jobs and doing more on-the-job training to make employees more likely to be successful.
“I think you try to develop programs that respond to the emerging and in-demand industries,” Smith said.
Dave Lamb, spokesman for Community Mercy Health Partners, said births at Springfield Regional Medical Center have fluctuated but were down in 2016, when 1,165 babies were born there, compared to the 1,282 born in 2010.
“There’s been the occasional uptick or downturn in the number of births (but) we’ve held fairly steady overall despite decreased area population,” Lamb said.
Officials at Kettering and Hamilton city schools also said it is too soon to see an impact from the birth rate decline, but Hamilton Supt. Tony Orr said a recent University of Cincinnati demographic study done for the district showed it is coming.
“We are expecting a decline over the next several years in kindergarten enrollment,” Orr said. “The direct correlation is between birth rate and enrollment.”
If enrollment declines in a particular building or incoming class, Kettering typically adjust teaching assignments. But if the birth rate decline leads to an overall reduction in student population, officials would look at cutting positions by attrition, said Dan VonHandorf, director of student services at Kettering City Schools.
“We don’t want classes of 35 and we also don’t want classes of 15 or 12,” VonHandorf said. “So you have to work every year and be careful with your numbers to make sure we are using taxpayer dollars wisely and also having a manageable number of kids for our teachers.”
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