The birth rate, measured as the “general fertility rate,” is the annual number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. The fertility rate was 58.3 births per 1,000 women in 2019, a record low for the United States.
This figure has worsened the old-age dependency ratio. That’s the number of seniors in a population divided by the number of working-age people. That number has doubled since 1950. It increases the costs of Social Security and health care to society.
The chart below illustrates birth rates for women across the United States in 2018, ranging from ages 15 to 44.
Why U.S. Birth Rates Are Falling
U.S. birth rates are falling for three reasons:
1. Teenage Pregnancy Is Dropping
It’s good news that fewer teenagers are having children. There were 16.6 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in 2019. Of those who had children, over 75% were 18 or 19. Almost 90% of teen births occurred outside of marriage in 2018.
Teenage birth rates are down over 70% since 1991, the most recent peak. Research shows there are more teens who have chosen to wait before having sex. Those who do have sex are more likely to use contraceptives.
This trend is healthy for society. Studies show that half of teenage mothers do not finish high school. Children of teenage mothers are more likely to experience health problems, incarceration, and unemployment and are themselves more likely to become teenage mothers.
2. Younger Women Are Delaying Motherhood
Birth rates fell 4% among women ages 20 to 24 years old and 3% among women ages 25 to 29 years old in 2018. A New York Times survey found that young women said they don’t have money or time to have more children. The top reason was that child care was too expensive. The second biggest reason was that many women would rather spend more time with their existing children than have new ones. The next three reasons involved financial insecurity. They either were worried about the economy, couldn’t afford more children, or had personal financial instability.
3. Almost a Third of Young Women Don’t Want Children at All
The New York Times survey found that these women are focused on their careers. This is the first generation that expects to earn less than their parents. As a result, they don’t feel financially secure. They also value other things, such as travel.
These women realize that having a child will hurt their earning potential. A 2019 study found that motherhood was the underlying reason for the gender pay gap. It didn’t matter whether the mothers worked outside the home or not. Stay-at-home moms lost earning power because they didn’t have relevant work experience. But even working moms suffered throughout their careers. Distractions due to childrearing kept them from promotional opportunities. The result was lower pay.
A 2018 NBER study found women’s earnings fell after the birth of their first child. Men’s earnings were not affected. Women’s salaries were 20% lower than those of their male counterparts even 10 years into parenthood. One reason is generational. When the daughter of a mother who works little, compared with her father, becomes a mother herself, she is more likely to experience gender inequality.
A 2018 study found that a similar loss occurred for MBAs, lawyers, and doctors. Scientists initially saw a setback but were able to almost erase the discrepancy in 10 years.
Almost 40% of women between ages 18 and 29 said in a 2018 Insider poll that they hesitated to have children because of climate change. In a 2018 New York Times survey, 33% of women said they were having fewer children due to climate change worries.
Birth Rate by State
Birth rates vary a great deal by state. Among the states with the lowest birth rates for ages 15 to 44 in 2019 were Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. These states all had birth rates below 10%.
What do they have in common? They’re all on the East Coast. They have major metropolitan areas that have major Ivy League universities. All except Rhode Island were among the eight most educated states in the country as a result, according to WalletHub’s annual survey for 2021. Massachusetts was the most highly educated state in the country. As the New York Times survey showed, women who pursue higher education are less likely to have children.
They also have high median ages: Vermont at 42.8, New Hampshire at 43.0, Rhode Island at 40.1, and Massachusetts at 39.4 in 2018. Older women are less likely to have babies for obvious reasons.
The five states with the highest birth rates are South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Utah, and Nebraska. These states all have birth rates above 13%. They are all in the Midwest or West. They also have low median ages: South Dakota at 37.1, North Dakota at 35.2, Alaska at 34.6, Utah at 31.0, and Nebraska at 36.6. They don’t rank as highly in education levels. None is in the top 10.
The list below shows the birth rate for women ages 15 to 44 for each state in 2019. The list is organized from lowest to highest birth rate:
- Vermont 8.67
- New Hampshire 8.84
- Maine 9.20
- Connecticut 9.72
- Rhode Island 9.94
- Massachusetts 10.01
- Oregon 10.07
- West Virginia 10.11
- Florida 10.40
- Pennsylvania 10.59
- Montana 10.84
- Delaware 10.98
- New Mexico 10.99
- Michigan 11.01
- Wisconsin 11.03
- Colorado 11.04
- South Carolina 11.15
- Arizona 11.26
- Wyoming 11.36
- New Jersey 11.36
- Illinois 11.37
- Washington 11.42
- North Carolina 11.46
- California 11.50
- Ohio 11.56
- New York 11.58
- Virginia 11.72
- Nevada 11.76
- Maryland 11.76
- Alabama 11.82
- Tennessee 11.93
- Hawaii 11.95
- Missouri 11.96
- Iowa 11.97
- Georgia 11.99
- Minnesota 12.00
- Kentucky 12.07
- Indiana 12.20
- Idaho 12.20
- Arkansas 12.28
- Mississippi 12.39
- Kansas 12.45
- Oklahoma 12.63
- Louisiana 12.79
- District of Columbia 13.11
- Texas 13.19
- Nebraska 13.21
- South Dakota 13.48
- Alaska 13.68
- North Dakota 13.99
- Utah 14.93
The birth rate rises and falls with age. It rises when there are more young women in a state. Scientists have created a measure called the “total fertility rate.” It measures the number of babies that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes. It’s a good way to find out whether a society will increase or decrease in population.
The fertility rate should be 2,100 births per 1,000 women to maintain population level. In other words, each woman should have two children to replace the two adult parents.
In 2019, the U.S. total fertility rate was 1,705 births per 1,000 women. That’s too low to maintain the country’s population.
Solutions for a Declining Fertility Rate
There are only two solutions to a declining fertility rate. The first is to encourage families to have more children. The United States does this through tax policy and job protection. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) increased the Child Tax Credit from $1,000 to $2,000. Up to $1,400 of this amount can be refundable. The TCJA also increased the qualifying income level from $110,000 to $400,000 for married tax filers.
The Child Tax Credit increases to $3,600 for each child under age six and to $3,000 for children ages 6 through 17, under the terms of the American Rescue Plan Act that was signed into law by President Biden in March 2021. This is a one-year provision only.
The Family and Medical Leave Act protects a new mother’s job for three months, but it doesn’t provide paid leave.
Other countries offer more creative solutions. Russia began to pay mothers $10,000 for a second or subsequent child in 2007. Singapore pays $8,000 for a first and second child and $10,000 for each subsequent child. France offers free daycare centers.
The second solution is to boost immigration. Newcomers to a country are more likely to be younger and are more likely to have children once they’re established.
The Bottom Line
- U.S. birth rates are declining. This trend is cause for concern because an aging population puts a strain on the economy. Social Security and health care expenses significantly eat into the nation’s income if this isn’t balanced by taxes from a sizable working-age group.
- Three major factors reduce birth rates: decreased teenage pregnancies, delayed motherhood, and an increase in women who refuse to have children. More and more women choose education and the higher income over having children. All of these factors contribute to the nation’s overall declining fertility rates.
- The United States can do two main things to address the situation. First, the government can encourage more births by dispensing more tax credits per family to boost income. Second, it can open its doors to more immigrants.