U.S. birthrate plummets to its lowest level since 1920


Director of Midwifery at Mary's Center Mindy Greenside monitors the heartbeat of Elsa Mendez's unborn daughter so that Mendez's mother, Elsa Arana, visiting from Guatemala, can hear on Wednesday. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The U.S. birthrate plunged last year to a record low, with the decline being led by immigrant women hit hard by the recession, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center.

The overall birthrate decreased by 8 percent between 2007 and 2010, with a much bigger drop of 14 percent among foreign-born women. The overall birthrate is at its lowest since 1920, the earliest year with reliable records. The 2011 figures don’t have breakdowns for immigrants yet, but the preliminary findings indicate that they will follow the same trend.

The decline could have far-reaching implications for U.S. economic and social policy. A continuing decrease could challenge long-held assumptions that births to immigrants will help maintain the U.S. population and create the taxpaying workforce needed to support the aging baby-boom generation.

The U.S. birthrate — 63.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age — has fallen to a little more than half of its peak, which was in 1957. The rate among foreign-born women, who have tended to have bigger families, has also been declining in recent decades, although more slowly, according to the report.

But after 2007, as the worst recession in decades dried up jobs and economic prospects across the nation, the birthrate for immigrant women plunged. One of the most dramatic drops was among Mexican immigrants — 23 percent.

Fewer births in the U.S.

The fall didn’t occur because there are fewer immigrant women of childbearing age but because of a change in their behavior, said D’Vera Cohn, an author of the report, which uses data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Cohn added that “the economic downturn seems to play a pretty large role in the drop in the fertility rate.”

Although the declining U.S. birthrate has not created the kind of stark imbalances found in graying countries such as Japan or Italy, it should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers, said Roberto Suro, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California.

“We’ve been assuming that when the baby-boomer population gets most expensive, that there are going to be immigrants and their children who are going to be paying into [programs for the elderly], but in the wake of what’s happened in the last five years, we have to reexamine those assumptions,” he said. “When you think of things like the solvency of Social Security, for example . . . relatively small increases in the dependency ratio can have a huge effect.”

The average number of children a U.S. woman is predicted to have in her lifetime is 1.9, slightly less than the 2.1 children required to maintain current population levels.

The falling birthrate mirrors what has happened during other recessions. A Pew study last year found that the current decline in U.S. fertility rates was closely linked to hard times, particularly among Hispanics.

“The economy can have an impact on these long-term trends, and even the immigrants that we have been counting on to boost our population growth can dip in a poor economy,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. He noted that Hispanic women, who led the decline, occupy one of the country’s most economically vulnerable groups.

Historically, once the economy rebounds after a recession, so does the birthrate, Cohn said.

But other factors may also be affecting the decline and may not change much once the economy recovers.

Almost half of all immigrants to the United States are of Hispanic origin. But in recent years, immigration from Mexico, the biggest contributing country, has dried up; for the first time since the Great Depression, the net migration from Mexico has been zero.

Latino immigrants who have been here longer tend to adopt U.S. attitudes and behavior, including having smaller families, Suro said. He added that the decline in the birthrate among Mexican immigrants is probably so sharp because the rate was so high that there was more room for it to fall.

Although the Hispanic birthrate may never return to its highest levels, immigrants who have babies will probably continue to boost overall fertility rates, said Frey, who considers the current decline a “short-term blip.” Immigrants from Asia, he said, continue to move to the United States, although their birthrates are not likely to approach that of Hispanic immigrants at their peak.

The recent birthrate decline among Latino women may also be related to enhanced access to emergency contraception and better sex education in recent years, said Kimberly Inez McGuire, a senior policy analyst at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

At Mary’s Center, an organization in the District that provides social services to low-income people, the waiting room on a recent morning was filled with immigrants, many with swollen bellies. But not all were planning large families.

Elsa Mendez, 22, a single Guatemalan immigrant who lives in Petworth, is set to give birth to her first child in December, but she said that after this one, she plans to go on birth control because she wants a better life.

“Sometimes [Hispanic] people — they have a lot of kids, and no talk about family planning,” she said. “I have neighbors who have nine kids — they come from El Salvador and are all together in the same room.”

But Mendez, a sales clerk, said she sees American families with fewer children and wants to emulate them. “I want to have more money for her,” she said, referring to her unborn child.

Mindy Greenside, director of midwifery at Mary’s Center, said many more immigrant women are asking about contraception than did so five years ago.

One of them is Elizabeth Rosa, 37, a Salvadoran who lives in Langley Park. Pregnant with her third child, she said it will be her last.

“To have more babies, it costs more,” she said as her 2-year-old son Emanuel played nearby.

Pointing to her belly, she said she plans to have her tubes tied after giving birth. “The factory is closing,” she said with a smile.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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