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Nation's Birthrate Drops to Its Lowest Level Since 1909

June 26, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. birthrate fell last year to its lowest level since records were first kept in 1909, federal officials said Wednesday, a development that has major implications for how families are structured, how communities spend money and how the nation finances its retirement, experts say.

In short, America is increasingly a society of seniors and less one of young people.

"That's a pretty big deal, and it's going to play out in all sorts of powerful ways for many years," said Paul Harrington, a population expert at Northeastern University in Boston. He believes that a chief effect of the trend will be an increased reliance on immigrant workers to meet the nation's retirement costs.

The rate fell to 13.9 births per 1,000 women ages 15-44 in 2002, down 1% from 2001 and 17% from its most recent peak, in 1990, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tallied birth certificate records provided by the states.

In a second key development, the birthrate among teens also fell last year to its lowest level on record, 43 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19, the CDC said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Birthrate -- An article and accompanying chart in Thursday's Section A misstated how the national birthrate was calculated. The correct measurement is the number of live births per 1,000 people, not live births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44.

That rate is down 28% from 1990, when rising teen pregnancy rates set off alarms and prompted a variety of groups to start campaigns promoting abstinence and birth control.

Stephanie Ventura, a CDC demographer, said the campaigns deserved much of the credit for the lower birth rate among teens. At the same time, she said, the strong economy of the 1990s "gave teenagers encouragement to pursue educational and career goals, because they could see there was a promising future for them, and that would entail not having children" immediately.

Although the economy had slowed recently, she said, the abstinence and birth-control messages may have stuck. "Teenagers have really responded, and there's probably more peer pressure," Ventura said.

Officials said the overall birthrate had fallen because of two other trends: Women are bearing fewer children, and the nation's senior population is steadily growing. These developments have been noted for many years, but demographers said the new numbers suggest that they show no sign of slowing.

"This is not a big surprise ..., but it's neat and cool because you're looking at the low point in a trend that has been developing for a very long time," said Brady Hamilton, lead author of the report. "It says a lot about where our society is going."

Among other things, said Harrington, the numbers show that U.S. families are still being reshaped by the movement of women into the work force. Women are having fewer children as they try to establish careers before starting families.

Harrington said women often make this choice not only because they want careers but also because they need them. "How do families get income gains? It's not through rising wages. It's moms working more hours," he said. "And when moms work more hours, they go to school more often too.... In the process, they delay having children."

Findings from the new report show that the trend is continuing. Birthrates for women in their peak childbearing years -- their early 20s through age 35 -- were flat or down last year. Birthrates for women considered "older mothers," those ages 35 to 44, rose 2%.

On a community and regional level, the declining birthrate will play out differently in different parts of the country, said Joel Kotkin, a social trend forecaster at Pepperdine University.

"Some parts of the country are in danger of becoming geriatric," he said. These include much of the Northeast and parts of the Great Plains, which have seen out-migration as well as low birthrates. "In some rural communities, there are essentially no children," Kotkin said. "Places [that once had] 700 kids in the high school now have 15."

By contrast, cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix have seen big influxes from overseas or other parts of the nation, and have relatively large numbers of children.

"The struggle between communities that have kids and those that don't is going to become more intense," Kotkin said. "Do we provide Head Start programs or aged-care programs?"

For Harrington, the birthrate story is largely the story of immigration. Already, immigrant workers are largely responsible for the growth of the U.S. labor force, which in turn has enabled the economy to grow. In the 1990s, Harrington said, one of every two new jobs went to a someone new to the United States. "In the absence of that immigration, you simply could not have generated the economic growth that the U.S. produced," he said.

Now, as baby boomers prepare to start retiring, the decline in birthrates means there will be even fewer native-born workers to support each retiree, Harrington said. That will bring new urgency to the debate over how much immigration the nation should allow.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter immigration laws, noted that U.S. birthrates remain more robust than those in much of Western Europe.

"The graying of the population is a universal phenomenon," he said. "Even Mexico and China and Iran are starting to see it. Using immigration as a way to forestall that is just a crutch. It can't really postpone those changes all that much."

Krikorian said better policies would be "things like increasing the retirement age, changing the way our pension systems work and investing in the kind of medical research that will permit older people to remain functional for much longer."

Officials with the Social Security and Medicare programs have already factored declining birthrates into their projections of the long-term financial health of those programs.

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