Falling fertility rates don’t spell trouble

Jessica McLaren, Assistant News Editor

According to a 2022 report from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the United States has experienced a 20% decline in birth rates since 2007 that cannot be explained by fluctuations within the country’s respective social, political and economic atmospheres. 

The report further explains that because this downtrend is not limited to one specific demographic, it is not expected to reverse any time soon. In the past, fertility rates have been known to drop in response to periods of economic recession. In these instances, however, the decline was temporary and had little to no impact on the average number of total children per household. 

Nonetheless, birth rates in the U.S. have continued to surrender below the “replacement level” birth rate of 2.1 children per household — a standard established in 1929 that aims to maintain and restore a country’s population after it has experienced a decline in fertility levels. In 2021, the U.S. reported a birth rate of 1.66 children per household, as per the CDC, reflecting a 12% decrease over the past 10 years. 

In general, social scientists and policymakers agree that lower birth rates can strain both local and federal governments and slow economic growth. However, the use of a population replacement model has been criticized as it fails to consider evolutions in social and political priorities across different groups of people. In other words, the replacement standard used today is convenient but unrealistic. 

When examining changes in population growth, it is important to discuss the reasons why people have kids in the first place. For example, many people choose to start a family because they wish to leave a legacy or because they view it as an investment of their own experiences and resources. On the other hand, many pregnancies are unplanned and occur as the result of poor sexual health education or limited access to contraceptives. However, as the stigmas surrounding sex, sexual health, pregnancy and parenting have lessened in recent years, it is quite possible that the decline in fertility rates is simply a reflection of the rapid development and diversification that has occurred amongst the U.S. population over the past two decades.

Alternative explanations for the observed trends in the U.S. population include the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in the cost of living. In fact, fertility levels are often closely associated with the economic state of a particular country as revealed in a study performed in 2018 for Zillow Research. The study found that just a 10% increase in housing prices correlated with a 1.5% decrease in birth rates in women aged 25 to 29. 

After all, raising children is expensive — very expensive. In 2015, the USDA Expenditures on Children by Families report revealed that the average married couple with two children making anywhere from $59,200 to $107,400 annually will spend approximately $25,960 per year on raising their children. 

Furthermore, the economic implications of parenting were likely exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when half of all U.S. states and almost three-fourths of all countries recorded more deaths than births in the 12 months following July 1, 2020, as reported by the Federal Census Bureau.

While a decline in population growth certainly has its consequences, it is not as scary as it sounds. In fact, low fertility rates actually extend several advantages, such as reduced environmental pressures and infrastructure costs. 

Nonetheless, a consistent decline in fertility rates can still be problematic as it contributes to a contractive population with a higher dependency ratio. This occurs when the younger populations, which typically occupy the majority of the workforce, are too sparse to support the needs of the elderly. However, it is possible that the consequences of these discrepancies may not be as extreme as they have been in the past, as rising generations have been regarded as more educated, open-minded and productive than their predecessors. Furthermore, those born during or after the 1990s have the advantage of having grown up with modern technology and may have more options for filling the gaps that arise as the current population ages. 

In all, declining fertility rates pose several threats to both existing and future generations, as they become increasingly difficult to reverse the longer they are maintained. However, they are not necessarily a direct indicator that a country has failed, either. While there is no way to tell what exactly the future holds for humanity, it’s unlikely that this signifies our entire collapse — not yet at least. Regardless, it is certainly something to keep an eye on as we make our way through the next couple of centuries if we want to be around to see the year 3022.