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Why The U.S. Birth Rate Is At Its Lowest In 30 Years


3.8 million babies were born in the U.S. last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that is a 30-year low. Joining us to help explain why people are having fewer kids and what that might mean for our future Gretchen Livingston. She's a senior researcher at Pew and studies fertility and demographics. Hey, Dr. Livingston.


KELLY: I'm well, thank you. So you study this stuff. What do you make of these numbers?

LIVINGSTON: I think there are a couple things going on. You know, on the one hand, what we're seeing is really just a continuation of really a very long-term trend of declines in fertility in the U.S., especially when we look at these type of fertility measures. You know, with increases in education and people delaying marriage, people are also delaying having babies. So we have these kind of long-term factors that are contributing to declines. But, you know, even though the recession was quite a while ago now, it may also be the case that some of the declines that we're seeing now may still relate in some way or another to the impact of that recession.

KELLY: You're describing an economic factor here, that if people are worried about the economy and not certain about what the future may hold for them, they might wonder if they can afford to have a kid. Is that the basic gist of it?

LIVINGSTON: That is the gist of it. I mean, I think experts are surprised that fertility has continued to tick down given that the recession ended so long ago. Historically, if we look back at past recessions and the Great Depression, it's always the case that fertility does go down during these periods. It's just I think some experts would've expected it to start to tick up a bit now.

KELLY: Well, put this into context for us. Are these numbers that we're seeing this year maybe a blip? Maybe the birthrate may rise again next year? Or do you think we are looking at a long-term trend?

LIVINGSTON: I mean, that's the $64,000 question. I don't think anyone knows for sure. You know, we have these long-term changes in society. So, you know, I don't think fertility is going to go up to rates - the really high rates that we once had. But at the same time, it still may be the case that some women have simply been postponing births, and they're going to catch up on some of their fertility down the road.

KELLY: People who study these trends in America I imagine look to other parts of the world that have that have also dealt with falling birthrates - if you look at Japan, for example, or some European countries.

LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. You know, on the one hand, we in the U.S. for the past several years, past decade basically have been pointing to the declines in our fertility rate. The fact is compared to most other similar countries, our fertility doesn't look that low. A lot of other countries are much further along in their fertility declines - Germany, Japan. France's fertility is somewhat similar to ours. Across the board, the more advanced economic countries have seen pretty steep declines.

KELLY: What is the role of immigration in the U.S. birthrate, people who are coming here from other countries? Is that at a rate that will keep population levels somewhat stable?

LIVINGSTON: If we look in the long term, back to let's say 1970, all of the growth in annual births in the U.S. has been attributed to immigrant moms. If immigrant moms had not been in the states, overall number of births would have actually declined in that time. It's actually quite striking. It's an important role. And I think moving forward, it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out given whatever changes may or may not occur to immigration policy or the climate for immigrants in the country.

KELLY: That's Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher at Pew. Gretchen Livingston, thanks for your time.

LIVINGSTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.