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.
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.