The rate has been falling over the years, and the number of births in the United States in 2017 was 2% lower than 2016. While the dip in provisional births that occurred during the Great Recession was unremarkable since the rate typically drops during times of economic strife, experts are surprised that the rate is continuing to decrease in spite of last year’s low unemployment rate and growing economy. The only group that experienced an increase in number of births were women age 40–44, and the number of provisional births for this group rose 2%.
There are a variety of possible reasons for the decrease. While the number of abortions received has stayed relatively the same since the passage of Roe vs. Wade, long term contraceptive use has increased. In addition to this, there are more contraceptive options available that don’t require regular doctor visits. The increased availability of contraception has significantly impacted the birth rate for teens age 15-19, which has decreased 7% since 2016 and declined by a whopping 55% since 2007.
In a recently released AP report, experts suggest that a reason for the decline is that millennial women are opting to have children later in life than previous generations in the service of their careers. A working paper by the Center for Economic Studies of the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that choosing to wait to have kids may really pay off—women who have children after age 35 are more likely to close the earning gap between themselves and their spouses than women who have children between the ages of 25 and 35.
While true causes can only be speculated, there is a potential downside to the decrease. For the first time, women are not having children at a rate where they are replacing themselves after they age out of the workforce. If the birth rate doesn’t rebound, this may pose a problem as a declining number of workers becomes responsible for supporting an increasing number of elderly retirees.
In an article for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg offers a possible solution to this problem. Goldberg posits that increasing the level of support for mothers may lead the birth rate to increase. Economically developed countries that are socially conservative have significantly lower fertility rates than developed countries that prioritize gender equality. When women have opportunities to work but will not receive maternity leave, affordable health care, or affordable child care, they are more hesitant to have children while working than women who live in countries where the government supports working mothers.
“Most women seem to want both jobs and children, and when they’re forced to choose, some will forgo parenthood, or have only one child,” writes Goldberg. Studies have shown that women in Sweden were more likely to have a second child if her partner took paternity leave for the first. Increasing support for women on both a government and domestic level could be the factor in revearsing this decline.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.