While the pandemic has caused hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S., the larger long-term risk to American prosperity is the slide in the birth and fertility rates that shows no sign of stopping.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that U.S. births declined 4% last year—about double the average annual rate of decline between 2014 and 2019—and hit another record low. The total fertility rate, or the average number of times a woman will give birth in her lifetime, declined to a record low of 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women. That’s much lower than the population “replacement” rate, which is about 2,100 births.
The good news is that the birth rate for teens fell 8% last year and has dropped 75% since 1991. That means fewer babies are likely to grow up in poverty. Most evidence indicates the declining teen birth rate is due to broader access to contraception and teens having less sex, rather than abortions.
Changing cultural mores are probably the main explanation for the birth decline. But some economists have speculated that the burden of student debt may also delay family formation among millennials. Sociologists have pointed to the educational advantage that women have over men as another factor. The opportunity costs of having children may also be increasing for women with careers, despite expanded business efforts to help with family leave and more flexible work arrangements.
No matter the cause, America’s baby bust will create a long-term drag on the labor force and economy. Increasing legal immigration will be necessary to offset the birth dearth, as even Japan has recognized in recent years.