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Editorial: What a falling birthrate may say about us

  • FILE - This Feb. 16, 2017 file photo shows newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. According to a government report released Wednesday, May 15, 2019, U.S. birth rates reached record lows for women in their teens and 20s, leading to the fewest babies in 32 years. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Published: 5/22/2019 10:10:25 PM
Modified: 5/22/2019 10:10:16 PM

There is good news and bad news to be found in last week’s report by the government that the U.S. birthrate fell for a fourth straight year in 2018. An estimated 3,788,235 people were born last year, the lowest number in 32 years.

First the good news. The birthrate among teenagers fell most sharply, declining by 7% to a record low 179,607 births to mothers between 15 and 19 years old. This suggests continued progress in addressing unwanted teen pregnancies, with all the risks and hardships they can entail.

But the birthrate also declined among women in their 20s, prime childbearing years. The number of births dropped 5% in 2018 among women in their early 20s and 3% among women in their late 20s.

This may be attributable in part to women feeling increasingly empowered to make their own decisions about when or if to have children, which would also be a positive development.

But demographers suggest that it also could be a sign that despite the strong economy, young people are still feeling the psychological and material aftereffects of the Great Recession and do not as yet feel secure and stable enough in their lives or confident enough in the future to start a family. So younger women may simply be postponing having children to somewhat later in life when they feel more secure. Indeed the birthrate among women aged 35-44 was up slightly in 2018.

A more depressing possibility is that young people are forgoing having children because the state of the nation and the world strikes them as too precarious. Sadly, climate change, intolerance and a host of other social ills that will be immensely hard for their generation to address could be shaping those decisions.

Whatever the reasons, the report noted that the total fertility rate — the estimated number of children a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes — continued to decline last year to a record low of 1,728, which is below the rate at which a generation can replace itself. (The replacement level is calculated at 2,100 births per 1,000 women.)

If that troubling trend were to continue, it would almost certainly indicate that the economy will be hobbled in the future by labor shortages and that fewer workers will be contributing to essential safety-net programs such as Social Security and Medicare. If the current official hostility toward immigration continues to prevail, that problem could be even worse.

Vermont, which in 2018 had the lowest number of births in the nation — 5,431 — is already feeling the pinch, which is perhaps why the administration of Gov. Phil Scott has resorted to paying out-of-staters to move to the Green Mountain State.

Both of the Twin States, and the nation more generally, could do a lot to encourage young people to have children simply by enacting family-friendly policies. Parental leave, access to high-quality child care, student-loan relief, affordable health insurance and ample housing stock are all things that government could and should promote. They all represent investments in a future that will be problematic without a vibrant population that is renewing itself at a sustainable rate.

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