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The Country's Annual Production Of Babies Has Hit A 30-Year Low

About 3.8 million babies were born in the U.S. last year. That’s the lowest annual production of babies since 1986, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the same time, fertility rates have hit record lows.

Brady Hamilton, a statistician and demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, says those records go back to 1909, so we’re talking 100-year lows.

“The report had some welcome news. For example, birth rates for teenagers are down to record lows, and prenatal care in the first trimester is up,” says Hamilton. And though birth rates declined for people under 35, birth rates for women between 35 and 44 rose. 

Researchers have pegged the 2008 recession as a big reason fertility rates started declining back then, but aren’t sure why it failed to rebound in step with the economy after that. Rising education levels, delays in marriage, a shift toward more women working outside the home, and rising childcare costs could all have something to do with it.

“I think it would be a mistake to say what’s happening is entirely or even mostly for economic reasons,” says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution who studies behavioral economics, families and marriage. “My view is that social norms are a bigger factor here than the economy.”

A study conducted in 2018 by Pew Research Center found that 4 in 10 childless adults under the age of 50 said they don’t ever expect to become parents.

“Women’s opportunities and roles have changed dramatically in the last half-century and with a lag, they are beginning to choose other life trajectories beyond simply being wives and mothers,” she says. “You then add to that that children are both expensive — and getting more so — and take a huge amount of time. So, something has to give.”

Scenarios like that, paired with an economic squeeze, might create a situation where people can only manage to raise a certain number of kids. And that, in turn, can eventually change people’s perception of the ideal family size.

“I am totally convinced from having read a lot and thought about this a lot that there is a feedback loop,” says Sawhill. “If you ask young people how many children they want, it usually is related to how many children were in their own family when they were growing up and then it gradually changes, but with a lag.”

Last year, only about 5% of new babies were born in the Mountain West. At the same time, the region has some of the fastest aging populations in the country.

“If you look at prior years, one particular state amongst those in the (Mountain West) is always noted for having particularly high fertility and birth rates, which is Utah,” says Brady Hamilton.

According to 2017 CDC data, Utah was one of only two states in the country that year with a high enough fertility rate to grow its population. Idaho followed close behind, while Colorado had one of the lowest fertility rates in the nation. Nevada, Montana and Wyoming fell somewhere in the middle. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.