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National Fertility not Reaching a Recovery: Here’s Why

November 28, 2018

It was expected that fertility rates would rise along with economic recovery after the most recent recession. The Social Security Trustees Report projections assumed that the total fertility rate (TFR), which is defined as the average number of children a woman who survives her reproductive years (ages 15-49), would rebound from its present 1.76 up to 2.0 births per woman. But according to a new research report from the Center for Retirement Research, ‘Is the Drop in Fertility Temporary or Permanent?’, the recovery in fertility rates may not occur.

Here we break down:

  • How changes in fertility are measured
  • The change of fertility since the last U.S. recession
  • Factors thought to have caused (and continue causing) this change

National Fertility Measurement

How did this study arrive at its conclusions?

First demographers measured how well the TFR reflected American fertility trends. They found that from 1976 up to the most recent recession, U.S. TFR followed a pattern of decline in recessions and subsequent rebounds afterwards. However, following the 2008 recession, the TFR continued to decrease.

Some sources claim that this is due to women waiting to have children--waiting for financial stability or their careers to begin. However, this cannot explain the decrease in TFR, as the “tempo adjusted” TFR is also decreasing.

It must therefore be assumed that the decrease in U.S. TFR is unconnected to the recession, and certain social and structural factors must be at play.

So if it’s not women waiting to have children, what is it that’s decreasing the TFR?

Racial Factors

The study first notes the decline in TFR by race. Hispanic and African American women have historically had higher fertility rates than white women.This is believed to be because these groups are generally younger than whites and include a higher percentage of women in their ideal child bearing years.

However, by 2001 the TFR for African American women had converged with the average, and between 2001 and 2016 the fertility rates for Hispanics dropped as well, also converging. This is perhaps due to slowing migration and that an increasing proportion of Hispanics are U.S. born.

By the year 2044, non-hispanic whites will cease to be the majority group, according to Census Bureau projections.

Educational Factors

Numerous studies show that increasing education levels has lowered fertility rates in less developed countries; the same is true for the United States. Interestingly, there are a few theories on the causal correlation between women’s education and lowered fertility rates.

The economic theory of fertility suggests an incentive effect; more educated women have higher opportunity costs of bearing children in comparison to lost income.

The household bargaining model suggests that educated women are more able to support themselves and thus have more bargaining power over household size.

The ideation theory suggests that through education women are more exposed to different family sizes through the classroom, community and worldwide, and thus have a better idea of the desired family size.

Additionally, women in developing countries who are more educated have a stronger knowledge of prenatal care and childbirth, therefore they will have greater confidence that their children will survive. They feel less compelled to have more children to “better the odds,” so to speak.

While there are a myriad of theories about the correlation between female education and lowered fertility, the correlation is a causal one. This fact is driving developing countries to make education more accessible to women and try to reap the social and economic benefits from a fertility rate closer to the “replacement rate” of about 2 children per woman.

There are many social and economic benefits to lowering the fertility rate to the replacement rate, including more resources being able to be devoted to each child. However, there are many risks to lowering below the replacement rate, as discussed below.

Religious Factors

Religion has been statistically shown to affect fertility rates (which seems simple, considering most religions frown upon the use of contraceptives and abortion). The fertility rate for Protestants was found to be 2.0, 2.2 for Catholics, and 2.6 for fundamentalists, while non religious women have a fertility rate of 1.5.

And as young people are less religious, especially in the U.S. and Europe, the effects of religion on fertility rates are starting to show in the decline.

There is a 20% gap between adults under 40 who believe religion is important to them, and adults over 40, according to a Pew Research Institute study.

Why it Matters

While there are advantages to having a TFR around the replacement rate for the population, which is 2.1 children per woman globally, there are potentially serious implications of consistently having a TFR under this replacement rate. Countries like Germany and Japan, who have been in this state for years now, may soon be facing these effects.

Currently, 46% of the world’s population live in countries below the global replacement rate of 2.1. Because these countries are not repopulating fast enough to sustain their population, an imbalance between elderly dependents and working-age people is beginning to form, which will only intensify in the coming years.

The increase of the elderly dependent population will strain resources, while the smaller working age population will have difficulty generating income tax revenue to support them. It’s likely that this will cause spending freedom to decrease, consumerism to decline and subsequently, job production will slow. These are all factors of a stagnant economy.

Considering that the average life expectancy is only increasing, there is even more of a strain on the working-age population.

These factors--racial, educational and religious--have affected the fertility rate, independent of the recession. The lower TFR doesn’t look like it’ll change with the economy at any time in the near future, which may spell trouble for the U.S. and other countries repopulating below the replacement rate in the (near) future.


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