July 27th, 2012 | Posted in Population Basics
by Carl Haub, senior demographer
The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) has reported preliminary birth statistics for 2011 and the downward trend in U.S. fertility noted earlier has continued. The number of births in 2011 was 3,961,000, down from the historic high of 4,316,233 in 2007. However, the decrease from 2010 to 2011 was quite a bit less than from 2009 to 2010, -46,000 compared with -123,665. The table below shows another important number, the total fertility rate (TFR) . In 2007, the TFR was 2.122 children per woman, but that declined to 1.932 in 2010. A TFR of about 2.1 is considered the “replacement” level in the United States, simply meaning that couples replace themselves in the population, not increasing the size of each generation. The extra 0.1 allows for the fact that, worldwide, the biological sex ratio at birth results in 5 percent more males born than females and that not all women will survive from birth to the end of their childbearing years. Ultimately, a population will reach zero growth if the replacement TFR continues.
Two other rates are shown in the table, births per 1,000 population and births per 1,000 women in the childbearing ages of 15-44. The latter, also called the general fertility rate (GFR), is considered a more sensitive measure of fertility than the former, also called the “crude” birth rate since the crude rate has the entire population in its denominator. From 2010 to 2011, the GFR declined by 1.2 percent, a good bit lower than the 3.7 percent drop from 2009-2010. Does that suggest that the decline may be coming to an end? More light will be shed on this issue near the end of this year when NCHS is expected to release birth figures for the first half of 2012.
U.S. fertility has been remarkably resilient over the years, returning to 2 children per woman in the postwar, post-Depression years, following the stagflation and energy crisis 1970s, and comparatively minor economic downturns after that. If fertility does bounce back, when might that happen? This is quite an important consideration for education planning, markets for baby and child products, housing, and so forth. Since everyone blames the global recession for the downturn, fertility should rise as the economic outlook improves, right? If that does prove to be the case, several factors may prevent it from happening quickly. There would have to be confidence that recovery is real and not likely to falter. Then, for those couples who foresee a brighter economic outlook, there is the obvious nine-month delay. Perhaps the smaller decline in 2011 births suggests that this has already begun to happen. But there is more to this than simply a rosy or not-so-rosy economic outlook. In the next blog post, I’ll look at the demography behind all of this which has not received widespread attention: differences in trends by ethnic group and the effect of a group’s age structure on what might be expected.