Economy may be curbing birthrate

The rate for 2009 was the lowest in a century. Some couples may be delaying having kids.

The U.S. birthrate has dropped for the second year in a row, and experts think the wrenching recession led many people to put off having children. The 2009 birthrate also set a record: lowest in a century.

Births fell 2.6 percent last year even as the population grew, numbers released Friday by the National Center for Health Statistics show.

"It's a good-size decline for one year," said Stephanie Ventura, the demographer who oversaw the report. "Every month is showing a decline from the year before."

The birthrate, which takes into account changes in the population, fell to 13.5 births for every 1,000 people last year. That is down from 14.3 in 2007 and way down from 30 in 1909, when it was common for people to have big families. "It doesn't matter how you look at it - fertility has declined," Ventura said.

The situation is a striking turnabout from 2007, when more babies were born in the United States than any other year in the nation's history. The recession began late that year, dragging stocks, jobs, and births down.

"When the economy is bad and people are uncomfortable about their financial future, they tend to postpone having children," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. "We saw that in the Great Depression in the 1930s, and we're seeing that in the Great Recession today. It could take a few years to turn this around."

Another possible factor in the drop: a decline in immigration.

The downward trend invites worrisome comparisons to Japan and its lost decade of choked growth in the 1990s and very low birthrates.

But Cherlin said that "our birthrate is still higher than the birthrate in many wealthy countries, and we also have many immigrants entering the country. So we do not need to be worried yet about a birth dearth" that would crimp the nation's ability to take care of its growing elderly population.

The new U.S. report is a rough count of births from states. It estimates there were 4,136,000 births in 2009, down from 4,247,000 in 2008 and more than 4.3 million in 2007.

The report does not give details on trends in different age groups. That will come next spring and will give a clearer picture who is and is not having children, Ventura said.