China isn’t alone with its concern about a low birth rate. The US birthrate is so low that the nation is “below replacement levels”, meaning that more people die every day than are being born, according to a federal health agency.
US birth and fertility rates fell by 4 percent last year, the largest decline in nearly 50 years, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in May. About 3.6 million babies were born in the US last year, down from about 3.75 million in 2019, data from the CDC show.
China on Monday raised the number of children each couple can have to three from two. The move is a major bid to reverse the country’s falling birth rate and turn around an aging population in the world’s most populous nation.
China dropped its longstanding one-child policy in 2016 in favor of a two-child limit, but that didn’t spark a continued rise in births.
In the US, births fell in 2020 for the sixth consecutive year to the lowest level since 1979. When births were booming in 2007, the US recorded 4.3 million. The rate dropped for women of every major race and ethnicity. The number of births fell 8 percent for Asian Americans, the highest decline among all ethnicities. Birth rates fell 4 percent for black and white women, 3 percent for Hispanic women and 6 percent for American Indians or Alaska Natives.
There was speculation that as the US went into lockdown because of the pandemic, the lack of things to do and places to go would lead to a recovery in the birth rate. But the new data show the opposite occurred. Health experts say that the anxiety about COVID-19 and its impact on the economy likely caused many couples to postpone or think twice about having a child.
Births were down the most sharply at the end of the year when babies conceived at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been born. Births declined by about 8 percent in December compared with December 2019, the CDC said. December had the largest decline of any month.
The general fertility rate in the US was already at a record low before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Birth rates in the US began to decline in 2008 after rising to their highest level in two decades.
A variety of factors have driven down the rate. The rates have dropped as American women marry later and delay motherhood. In 2019, the average age of mothers when they first give birth was 27, while the mean age was 23 in 2010, according to the data from the CDC.
“If you’re not having your first child until you’re 37 or 38, you have less time to have a big family,” said Dr. James Stelling, a physician in obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Advanced Specialty Care, a Stony Brook Medicine facility, in New York told Healthline.
“If you don’t have an unplanned pregnancy at 21, you don’t have your third at 25. It’s the decline of the mega family,” he said.
The decrease might reflect the lingering effects of the Great Recession that officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. The financial crisis appeared to accelerate the underlying long-term trend of people choosing to have smaller families or not have children at all.
The crisis also made it harder for people now in their 20s and 30s to reach their life milestones such as getting married, establishing a career or buying a home. Those milestones often precede starting a family. Women tend to put off having babies because of uncertainty with jobs and income.
The CDC found an inverse correlation between educational attainment and the age of new mothers and the number of babies they have. Women with at least an undergraduate degree have fewer children and have them later than those with lower educational attainment. This effect is shown in countries and cultures around the world.
Women who have invested time and effort in obtaining skills will be forced to limit their participation at work after having babies. The lack of participation at work is likely to curb their future income.
Fertility rates of countries that have higher female participation in both education and training have been falling for decades. But the falling paces are different. Countries such as France and several Scandinavian nations with more developed childcare systems in place have seen less notable declines.
Other factors such as universal childcare, paid parental leave and the costs of education and healthcare also make a difference.
Ai Heping in New York contributed to this story.