Experts warn that there are no easy solutions to the growing problem.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics has cited the fertility rate — the average number of children born per woman — at 1.7, the lowest national average on record for the United States and far below the replacement bar of 2.1.
The last peak in birthing rates was in 2007, but since then the U.S. has seen a decrease in all but one year. In 2018, fewer than 3.8 million children were born, and this number is only expected to decrease in the coming decade.
The data has urged experts to warn of the social and economic implications of a continued decline, but they also say there is no easy solution to the problem.
There is no single cause to blame for the drop in fertility rate. Jonathan V. Last, author of the book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, told Catholic News Agency that he believes there is a complex of social factors that have led to the current rate.
“Many of the reasons people are having children later are good and reasonable. Look at the drop in fertility among 20-24 year-olds: that’s in large part down to the number of people now attending college, and people just don’t tend to get married and start families while they are in college,” Last told CNA.
Last said that the decline in the white and African American demographics has been consistent, but that Latino Americans, who come to the U.S. with higher fertility rates, have had the steepest drop. Fertility rates among Latino immigrants drop to U.S. levels after just one or two generations.
Another factor in the drop in fertility rates is a change to different forms of contraceptives. Dr. Catherine Pakaluk, Assistant Professor of Social Research and Economic Thought at the Catholic University of America, suggests that the switch to intrauterine devices (IUDs), as opposed to the pill, has lowered the number of unplanned pregnancies:
“These long-acting contraceptives tend to be much more immune to behavioral screw-ups. Even with the pill people are prone to contracepting badly and have a higher error rate leading to accidental but not necessarily unwelcome births, and these are disappearing.”
Pakaluk clarified that these pregnancies make up a small portion of births, but she believes it is hastening the decline. She also cited the presence of babies in households with adolescent children as a factor:
“If you live in a society in which the typical family has three or four children, the older children will be experiencing a young child into their teenage years. But if you move to an average of 1.5-2, no teenagers on average will live with babies – think what that means for their own likely fertility choices.”
Both Last and Pakaluk warned that a continued fertility rate of 1.7 would make many of the government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be unsustainable for future generations.
As far as solutions go, there is no single answer that is expected to fix the situation. Last noted that a standard response to the economic problems based on fertility rate is immigration, which he cautioned against.
“In a healthy model you want to see a kind of pyramid shape, with the largest cohort among the youngest people tapering up to the oldest. Relying on adult immigration creates a bulge around the middle, which doesn’t address the underlying problem or future effects of low fertility and an aging population.”
Last said that many areas of the world that have been dealing with fertility rate difficulties far longer than the U.S. have tried various policy solutions with no significant effect. These include monetary incentives for having more children, but this has not spurred women to have more children.
Last concluded that “The causes of lower fertility are incredibly complicated, and there is no obvious or simple mechanism for moving those numbers in the other direction.” He did note, however, that the most consistent tracker of higher fertility rates was regular church attendance. He found that people who went to church every week generally tended to have more children.
“I think a big part of this is looking at your life as part of a linear continuum, understanding your place between what has come before and what will come after helps condition you to understanding the greater good of starting a family and having children,” said Last. “If your worldview is primarily formed around personal fulfillment and self-actualization, where is the incentive to have a family? You might have one child for the experience, but not two or three or four.”