U.S. births have hit the lowest point in 35 years, with fertility rates dipping to “below replacement levels,” according to a federal health report released Wednesday.
There were 3,745,540 babies born in the U.S. in 2019, down 1% from the previous year, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The fertility rate was 58.2 births per 1,000 women between 15 and 44 years old, a 2% decline from 2018 and another record low.
This is the fifth consecutive year birth rates have declined, and some experts say the coronavirus pandemic could have a lasting impact on family planning.
Dr. Aaron Caughey, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at Oregon Health and Science University, said that despite conjectures about a potential coronavirus-related baby boom, experts don’t know how COVID-19 actually will affect birth rates.
“For the planners, this couldn’t be a worse time to plan a pregnancy,” Dr. Caughey said, noting that many women don’t plan their pregnancies.
There could be a huge uptick in unplanned pregnancies, due to more difficult access to birth control and people spending more time together at home, he said.
“But maybe, potentially, a downtick in planned pregnancies. So the question is, which is going to be the most?” he said.
Using data from 99% of birth certificates issued last year, the CDC found that birth rates declined for nearly all age groups of women between 15 and 34 years old, but rose for women in their early 40s.
The birth rate for women between 15 and 19 years old declined by 5% in 2019 to 16.6 births per 1,000, while the rate for women ages 35 to 39 stayed about the same, at 52 births per 1,000.
“When you look at the birth rates for different age groups, it makes perfect sense to me,” said Dr. Tamika Auguste, a fellow for American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). “Women are delaying childbearing until later in life. We’ve seen that a lot in our big urban cities, but I think we’re seeing that more nationally now.”
Dr. Auguste said the decreasing birth rates could be due to robust family planning initiatives, campaigns against teen pregnancies, cultural influences and increased interest in adoptions.
William Frey, a demographer for the Brookings Institution, said millennials postponing marriage and starting families and the lingering effects of the 2008 recession also contribute to the fertility decline. The economic damage from the COVID-19 could also possibly lead to declining birth rates.
“Another recession could come along and perhaps have a similar effect, not just on the millennials but maybe on the Generation Z who are now moving into their 20s,” he said. “So what may have looked like we could’ve gotten some make up births from millennials may not happen, may not be as likely to happen. And we may have a similar situation going on with Generation Z who are postponing major life decisions, but of course we don’t know.”
Although pregnant women have been thought to be at increased risk of severe morbidity and mortality from specific respiratory infections, the ACOG says limited data does not suggest this is the case with COVID-19.
A declining birth rate could lead to the eventual decline in the number of prime-age workers, Georgetown University economics professor James Albrecht told The Washington Times last year.
“The main effect of a declining birthrate will be the eventual decline in the number of prime-age workers,” Mr. Albrecht said. “The transfer system in the U.S., and in other developed countries, is one in which the taxes paid by prime-age workers subsidize older individuals, so the effect will be felt mainly among retirees.”
The ratio of working-age Americans to seniors fell from 5 in the early 1980s to 3.6 this year, according to Peter Morici, an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland.
U.S. births have declined every year, except 2014, since 2007 when the Great Recession began and did not rebound despite an economic turnaround.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.