The U.S. fertility rate has plummeted to the lowest point on record, according to new federal data. The first quarter of 2016 brought 59.8 babies for every 1,000 women, ages 15 to 44. That's nearly half the rate at the peak of the baby boom in the late 1950s.
The numbers show an unmistakable trend: Women in the U.S. who choose to reproduce keep delaying motherhood. Each generation has waited a little longer than the last. Four decades ago, an American woman typically delivered her first baby at age 21. By 2000, she was 24.9. Today, she is 26.3.
A few reasons are obvious: Birth control became widely available to women in the ’60s. More women have finished school and launched careers before starting a family. More rejected the idea they had to start a family at all.
Another driver of America's increasingly late parenthood, however, has little to do with feminist empowerment. Many women who want a child or more children choose not to try for them. Some fear they can’t afford a baby, researchers say. They’re instead working toward stability, an uphill battle for many with student debt or bleak job prospects.
Forty percent of U.S. women ages 40 to 55 say they have fewer children than they’d like, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
“We have to see the declining fertility as being economic,” said Nan Astone, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “The coincidence of decline and recession is hard to ignore.”
Between 2007 and 2012, for example, right before and just after the last recession, birthrates among 20-something women fell by 15 percent, according to a 2015 UI Report.
Young women, it turns out, are behind much of America’s plummeting fertility rate. From 2015 to 2016, the fertility rate among teens shrank from 75.2 babies per thousand women to 72.5. The rate for women in their 20s decreased from 100.3 to 98.4.
But women in their 30s — those more likely to have a stable career and higher income — experienced a baby bump. The rate for the 30-to-34 group grew from 101 in the first quarter of 2015 to 102 in the first quarter of 2016. Those in their 40s saw a slight increase, as well:
Building a family, regardless of age, is expensive.
Child-care costs across the country are soaring, and the U.S. doesn't guarantee a single day of paid maternity or paternity leave for workers.
It's tough to say whether policy changes, such as implementing paid family leave or introducing new child-care tax credits, would boost fertility among younger women. Republican leaders have argued that creating more high-paying jobs, rather than rolling out sweeping mandates, would better address our economic woes. Donald Trump recently threw a new plan into his party's mix, proposing tax-free child care.
Democrats say female breadwinners deserve more support. Hillary Clinton said the government should cover up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and create more subsidized child care.
"The more we do to help working families," she said recently, "the more our entire economy will benefit."
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