Against the Trend, U.S. Births Way Up

Mike Stobbe, AP, January 16, 2008

Bucking the trend in many other wealthy industrialized nations, the United States seems to be experiencing a baby boomlet, reporting the largest number of children born in 45 years.

The nearly 4.3 million births in 2006 were mostly due to a bigger population, especially a growing number of Hispanics. That group accounted for nearly one-quarter of all U.S. births. But non-Hispanic white women and other racial and ethnic groups were having more babies, too.

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Experts believe there is a mix of reasons: a decline in contraceptive use, a drop in access to abortion, poor education and poverty.

There are cultural reasons as well. Hispanics as a group have higher fertility rates—about 40 percent higher than the U.S. overall. And experts say Americans, especially those in middle America, view children more favorably than people in many other Westernized countries.

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To many economists and policymakers, the increase in births is good news. The U.S. fertility rate—the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime—reached 2.1. That’s the “magic number” required for a population to replace itself.

Countries with much lower rates—such as Japan and Italy, both with a rate of 1.3—face future labor shortages and eroding tax bases as they fail to reproduce enough to take care of their aging elders.

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The 2006 fertility rate of 2.1 children is the highest level since To be sure, the fertility rate among Hispanics—3 children per woman—has been a major contributor. That’s the highest rate for any group. In 2006, for the first time, Hispanics accounted for more than 1 million births.

The high rate probably reflects cultural attitudes toward childbirth developed in other countries, experts said. Fertility rates average 2.7 in Central America and 2.4 in South America.

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Some complain that many illegal immigrants come here purposely to have children.

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Fertility rates were also relatively high for other racial and ethnic groups. The rate rose to 2.1 for blacks and nearly 1.9 for non-Hispanic whites in 2006, according to the CDC.

Fertility levels tend to decline as women become better educated and gain career opportunities, and as they postpone childbirth until they are older. Experts say those factors, along with the legalization of abortion and the expansion of contraception options, explain why the U.S. fertility rate dropped to its lowest point—about 1.7—in 1976.

But while fertility declines persisted in many other developed nations, the United States saw the reverse: The fertility rate climbed to 2 in 1989 and has hovered around that mark since then, according to federal birth data.

Hans-Peter Kohler, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor, and others say the difference has more to do with culture than race. For example, white American women have more children than white European—even though many nations in Europe have more family-friendly government policies on parental leave and child care.

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Other factors include recent declines in contraceptive use here; limited access to abortion in some states; and a 24/7 economy that provides opportunities for mothers to return to work, he said.

Also, it is more common for American women to have babies out of wedlock and more common for couples here to go forward with unwanted pregnancies. And, compared with nations like Italy and Japan, it’s more common for American husbands to help out with chores and child care.

There are regional variations in the United States. New England’s fertility rates are more like Northern Europe’s. American women in the Midwest, South and certain mountain states tend to have more children.

The influence of certain religions in those latter regions is an important factor, said Ron Lesthaeghe, a Belgian demographer who is a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. “Evangelical Protestantism and Mormons,” he said.

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