By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007
For the first time in 35 years, the U.S. fertility rate has climbed high enough to sustain a stable population, solidifying the nation's unique status among industrialized countries.
The overall fertility rate increased 2 percent between 2005 and 2006, nudging the average number of babies being born to each woman to 2.1, according to the latest federal statistics. That marks the first time since 1971 that the rate has reached a crucial benchmark of population growth: the ability of each generation to replace itself.
"It's been quite a long time since we've had a rate this high," said Stephanie J. Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics. "It's a milestone."
While the rising fertility rate was unwelcome news to some environmentalists, the "replacement rate" is generally considered desirable by demographers and sociologists because it means a country is producing enough young people to replace and support aging workers without population growth being so high it taxes national resources.
"This is a noteworthy event," said John Bongaarts of the Population Council, a New York-based think tank. "This is a sign of demographic health. Many countries would like to be at this level."
Europe, Japan and other industrialized countries have long had fertility rates far below the replacement level, creating the prospect of labor shortages and loss of cultural identity as the proportion of native-born residents shrinks in relation to immigrant populations. In contrast, many developing nations' birthrates far exceed the replacement rate, fueling poverty and social unrest.
"Over the long term you can't have significant continued growth or continued decline," said S. Philip Morgan, a Duke University sociologist. "Neither one is sustainable."
The reasons for the unusual U.S. fertility rate are the focus of intense interest. Experts can only speculate, but they cite a complex mix of factors, including lower levels of birth control use than in other developed countries, widely held religious values that encourage childbearing, social conditions that make it easier for women to work and have families, and a growing Hispanic population.
"It's not clear which of these factors is most important," Bongaarts said.
The nation's total fertility rate hit a high of nearly 3.8 in the United States in 1957 during the postwar Baby Boom. But it fell sharply through the 1960s and 1970s with the introduction of the birth control pill and other trends, including women delaying childbearing to attend college and pursue a career. The rate dipped below replacement level in 1972 and hit a low of 1.7 in 1976, but it started rising again in the late 1970s. It climbed steadily through the 1980s, hovering close to but never hitting the replacement rate throughout the '90s. The population rose steadily nevertheless, however, because, in part, of immigration.
The fertility rate finally surpassed the replacement threshold again in 2006, according to a preliminary analysis of birth data released by the government this month. When the report was published, attention focused on a jump in the teen birthrate for the first time in 14 years, but the statistics show that was part of an increase in birthrates across almost all ages.
"The teenagers may have had some impact, but the birthrate went up for every group, including women in their 20s, and they account for a huge percentage of the childbearing in this country," Ventura said.
Some have speculated that one small factor for the rise may be an increase in births in families of military personnel being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ventura said.
"Maybe they came back and didn't know when their next deployment may be," Ventura said. "That's very interesting, but it's anecdotal at this point."
Some of the increase is explained by immigration. Hispanics have the highest fertility rate -- about 2.9 -- followed by blacks (2.1), Asians (1.9) and whites (1.86). But Hispanics do not represent enough of the population to fully explain the trend, and the fertility rate of U.S. whites is still higher than that of other developed countries.
"It's hard to say any one factor is responsible. It's frustrating when you can't put your finger on what's going on," Ventura said.
For developed countries, a replacement-level fertility rate is considered vital for keeping retirement programs such as Social Security solvent by supplying new workers to pay into the system to support retirees.
"A low birthrate results in an old society. It will be hard to support social systems when you have so few people relative to older people," Bongaarts said. "The Europeans are very worried and are turning to all sorts of measures, including giving incentives to people to have children."
The slowdown in the fertility rate can be offset by increasing immigration, but that has caused a backlash across Europe.
"It's a real crisis for some countries," Morgan said. "If you're talking about replacing the births you are not having with migrants, that would lead to fundamental societal change for the receiving country."
Although many European countries offer women incentives to have children, such as providing lengthy paid maternity leave, guaranteeing their jobs and subsidizing child care, the efforts have had limited impact.
"It's widely accepted in the United States that women can have this balance," said Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington research organization. "I'm not sure that's true in some European countries, such as Germany, where there may still be more of a stigma attached to women working and having families."
While being a mother who works outside the home is far from easy for many American women, many experts said the United States is in many ways more amenable to the practice than many other developed countries. The high-octane consumer economy, for example, helps women run households more efficiently in a number of ways, including making prepared foods more widely available, and weekend and late-night shopping possible. American men are also helping more with their children than in the past, experts say.
"We also have a relatively high percentage of part-time jobs available," said Ronald Rindfuss, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina. "There's also more shift work outside the normal nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday schedule that enables parents to share child care."
The nation's religiosity also contributes to the higher fertility rate, which varies geographically, experts said. Red states tend to have both more religious people and higher fertility rates.
"Americans are much more religious than Europeans: They believe in God more. They go to church more," said Charles Westoff, a Princeton University demographer. "That sort of religious attitude or set of values is strongly correlated with fertility."
Whatever the cause, the fertility rate combined with increased immigration is likely to continue to fuel growth of the U.S. population, experts said.
"We have a lot of population momentum in this country because we have so many young people who themselves are going to soon be having 2.1 children," Mather said. "We're going to be growing for quite some time at a fairly fast pace."
But not everyone sees that as encouraging, given that the United States remains a leading consumer of increasingly scarce natural resources.
"The world is now consuming resources faster than the Earth can sustain over the longer term," said Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. "Forests are shrinking. Fisheries are collapsing. Water tables are falling. Large parts of the world's grasslands are deteriorating. The U.S. is already disproportionately responsible for that because of our very high consumption levels."