Did the Great Recession reduce the US birth rate?

A few years ago it was conventional wisdom that the Great Recession reduced America’s birth rate.  That’s possible, but it’s striking how little evidence there is for that claim.  It’s true that the birth rate declined between 2007 and 2010, but we all know that correlation doesn’t prove causation.  And there’s a lot of evidence pointing in the opposite direction.  Here’s one popular measure of the birth rate:

Now let’s consider all of the evidence against the claim that the Great Recession reduced America’s birth rate:

1. Rich countries tend to have much lower birth rates than poor countries.  So poverty doesn’t seem to reduce birth rates.

2.  If you prefer time series evidence; the US birth rate has trended down for 100 years, even as we’ve become much richer.

3.  It’s true that the birth rate fell during the 1930s, but it fell much faster during the booming 1920s.  It fell especially sharply during 1955-73, one of the very best periods ever for having big nuclear families with stay at home moms.  The birth rate was flat during the bad period of 1979-83, when unemployment soared to 10.8%, but fell during the booming 1990s.  Go figure.

4.  In 2016, the birth rate declined in 2016 to the lowest rate ever, despite one of the fastest 2-year growth spurts in real median household income ever seen in US data:

There may be a slight lag in the impact of the economy on the birth rate, but if we don’t see a sharp rise in the birth rate in 2017, then we may need to revise the conventional wisdom on the Great Recession.

5.  The birth rate decline has been far sharper for teens than for other groups:

In the United States, teen-aged moms are increasingly rare. In 2016, the teen birth rate dropped 9% compared to the previous year, a new government report published Friday found. This record low for teens having babies continues a long-term trend.

The birth rate among teen girls has dropped 67% since 1991, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which presented preliminary data for 2016 based on a majority (99.9%) of births.

In 2016, the number of US births totaled 3,941,109, a decline of 1% compared to 2015. The fertility rate of 62 births per 1,000 women is a record low for the nation.

The teen rate is a “phenomenal decline,” said Dr. Elise Berlan, a physician in the section of adolescent medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Interestingly, this sharp decline in teen births occurred during a period when teens are increasingly delaying the adoption of adult-like behavior.  The share of teens that date, have sex, drive cars, drink alcohol, smoke, work on jobs, and other similar activities is falling sharply.  I doubt the Great Recession caused teens to not want to date, drink, or get a drivers license.  More likely, we are seeing a longer term cultural change, driven by factors unrelated to the business cycle.  (Also note that the really sharp decline in teen births began with the Great Recession, and has continued right up until the present time.)

One thing I can’t stand about cultural conservatives is that they are always pessimistic about the younger generation.  I recall back in 1991 that America’s cultural conservatives were wringing their hands at how the high teenage birth rate and crack cocaine addiction was going to lead to a generation of dysfunctional children.  Since then, we’ve seen a massive decline in teen births, and also a huge decline in crime, divorce, and lots of other metrics of social distress.  America’s teens are behaving amazing responsibly, (maybe too responsibly, IMHO).

So are the social conservatives trumpeting this wonderful turnaround?  No.  Instead of celebrating this cultural trend they find new things to worry about—rising use of opioids, single moms, or the fears that immigration will bring in low IQ people that dilute our gene pool.

I really, really wish that cultural conservatives would just cheer up.  (Or light up a joint in one of the states where it’s now legal, and chill.)



21 Responses to “Did the Great Recession reduce the US birth rate?”

  1. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    22. September 2017 at 09:39

    “We’re going to hell in a handbasket” is hardly the exclusive preserve of cultural conservatives. Today, sandwich boards cover the ideological waterfront.

    Cast your annoyance wider please.

  2. Gravatar of Drew Drew
    22. September 2017 at 09:49

    The rise and prevalence of birth control is always a huge missing piece in these conversations…

  3. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    22. September 2017 at 10:24

    I am reading with interest the first 2/3rds of this essay, expecting you to make some kind of interesting speculation about the impact of low birth rates in advanced societies.

    Then you suddenly stop short and pivot into non-sequitur territory. Some group called “cultural conservatives” (later called “social conservatives”) are somehow fearing “low IQ” gene pools (its the progressive high tech world that seems obsessed with bringing “high IQ” immigrants in the country) and complaining about the younger generation. Then you “really really” wish these people would just cheer up. I would like to increase my cheer quotient too.

    Send me some of that California Pot you seem to be smoking (if it legal, of course) just in case I am not cheerful enough :-).

    Where do you get this stuff from?

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. September 2017 at 11:54

    Brian, Like all my posts bashing PC nuts?

    Michael, Remember Bill Bennett?

  5. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    22. September 2017 at 12:50

    Yes on Bennett—-but his philosophy is not very front and center anymore. Plus I never thought of him as fearing a “low IQ gene pool”.

    I really was just teasing—because I really AM INTERESTED in what your views on demography are. Look at Japan (and soon China) and Europe. We are the one country the most people want to come to—(and where Trump is really off the wall). It is one of our great comparative advantages. Julian Simon’s Ultimate Resource comes to mind.

  6. Gravatar of Dave Dave
    22. September 2017 at 13:28

    Your observations about birth rates are keen.
    Thinking about the opportunity cost of a woman dropping out of the labor force to care for a young child, the data seems consistent with an a priori symmetry between the hypotheses of (1) recessions decreasing the birth rate via the income effect and (2) booms decreasing the birth rate via the substitution effect.

    Cheers for more responsible teens and cheers for lower crime!
    However, I would quibble with naively interpreting a decline in divorces per person per year as more stable families. Divorces per marriage per year would make more sense and looks flat from 2000 through 2014.


    A better metric is, what is the probability that a random 15-year old has been living with the same two parents for 15 years? Similar to this:


  7. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    22. September 2017 at 13:51

    Since then, we’ve seen a massive decline in teen births, and also a huge decline in crime, divorce, and lots of other metrics of social distress.

    Your objective observations are correct and your subjective bashing of concerns in general and conservatives in particular is always so lovely but then my Advocatus Diaboli kicks in and I think maybe the massive decline took place because parts of society were worried about those issues and tackled the problems? Horrendous idea, I know.

  8. Gravatar of BC BC
    22. September 2017 at 17:35

    Is there a correlation between countries with generous old-age entitlements and low-birth rates? My impression is that rich nations tend to have both generous entitlements and low birth rates relative to poor nations. Before Social Security, people relied on savings and their own children for financial support in old age. Social Security socializes old-age support so that the childless and those with few children can rely on the children of those with many children. That would seem to remove one of the traditional reasons for having many children. I haven’t seen this hypothesis explored though as a possible reason why countries with generous old-age entitlements seem to have so much trouble sustaining the population growth necessary to support those entitlements. When we socialize other things, we recognize that there may be perverse incentive effects, but not when it comes to socializing retirement support though.

  9. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    22. September 2017 at 18:29

    Sumner, opioids now are a bigger problem than the late 1980s drug crisis ever was. Of course, the teen birth rate decline is most likely a good thing, though I still attribute its sharpness to the recession.

    “I doubt the Great Recession caused teens to not want to date, drink, or get a drivers license.”

    Why? It reduced employment prospects for them, which should lower all these.

    I believe teen births are more cyclical than non-teen births due to unskilled labor being more cyclical than skilled labor.

    The birthrate collapse in the former USSR shows your claim recessions don’t cause birthrate declines to be false.

    I’m glad immigration quality has increased since the Great Recession, but that’s due to the lack of job opportunities in construction.

    I’m not that worried about the increase in single motherhood, interestingly enough. I’m much more concerned about the declining avg years married per woman.

  10. Gravatar of Tim Worstall Tim Worstall
    22. September 2017 at 20:25

    A question.

    Do we measure birth rate per population? Or birth rate per population of potentially fertile women?

    That is, in the first case then a falling birth rate could simply be being caused by the general ageing of the population….

  11. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    22. September 2017 at 20:42

    Interesting topic. I think you need to look at a few things though.

    1. Age distribution of the population. I.e. when the baby boomers hit child rearing ages, birth rate goes up.

    2. Timing of the termination of the AFDC program.

    3. Birth rates in Japan and Korea during the Great recession.

    4. Average tax burden over the last 100 years on families.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. September 2017 at 21:24

    Michael, Agree about Julian Simon.

    Dave, Fair point.

    Christian, They said the 60s generation was ruining our culture. We still have a lot of 60s attitudes towards sex, divorce, pot, gays, etc., but the culture is somehow improving. So how did Bill Bennett fix the problem?

    BC, That might be part of it, but China’s seeing a fast falling birth rate (even with the one child policy being phased out) and lacks a good pension system.

    Harding, Are you seriously arguing that the employment opportunities of teens is lower today than in the 1970s or 1980s?

    Tim, I wondered about that too, but I’m pretty sure that it’s falling regardless of how it’s measured. The absolute number of births is falling, and the number of women of childbearing age is not falling.

    dtoh, Good points. Are there any good graphs of Japanese and Korean birth rates?

  13. Gravatar of Jmcsf Jmcsf
    23. September 2017 at 03:42

    I actually am curious to what degree the change in teen behavior is due to smartphones? I was just in the cut off for not having a cell phone in high school. I see my nieces and nephews now and their lives are completely different.

    As much stress as this causes their parents, I do think that it may causes change s in behavior that are driving the decrease in drivers licences and possibly drinking and sex.

  14. Gravatar of bill bill
    23. September 2017 at 04:42

    I just learned something new, so thanks! Looking at the trend from 1921 to 1933, one really can’t say, “here’s where the Great Depression started”. I always thought, incorrectly, that there was a drop Caused by the Great Depression. And similarly for the Great Recession. It looks like the birth rate dropped, yes, but it could just be part of the trend.

    Which reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

  15. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    23. September 2017 at 16:38

    Scott, you sound a bit too one-dimensional in this case. Yes, we still have a lot of 60s attitudes but other 60s attitudes seem to have declined. Some researches even claim that the young generation of today is the most conservative generation ever (since the beginning of the recordings).

    The revolutions during the 60s were mostly positive but there were some negative side effects as well. The conservatives had some points, the world is not black and white.

    I’m not sure why we are talking about the 60s now anyhow. We talked about the (according to you) significant “decline in teen births, crime, divorce, and lots of other metrics of social distress.” You didn’t really gave an explanation for this development, it just so happened. And all I said (or wanted to say) was, that conservative people might play a role in that development, and not only a negative one, but a positive one, too.

  16. Gravatar of AlecFahrin AlecFahrin
    23. September 2017 at 22:14


    You asked if we just need to wait a little longer, well I think this article gives the answer.
    It measures the fertility rate from April 2016 to March 2017. Another significant drop of about 2.5%.
    That’s right in the middle of the so-called boom in 2015-2016 and the resulting children conceived during this period.
    As a young man who anecdotally sees this phenomenon happening all around myself, I’d argue that the US is rapidly coverging with European birthrates. Many women and men are delaying marriage and de-sexualizing/de-socializing. If a woman waits till 30 to marry, she has one child on average. The average millennial marriage age is now at 30 or so. Generally the woman is younger.
    Hence, if not for immense numbers of hispanic immigrants, the USA would likely have a European level fertility rate. I believe hispanics are going the same direction that whites, african americans, and asians already have.

  17. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    24. September 2017 at 07:23

    The world is turning Japanese. Let’s hope we know how to handle that.

  18. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    24. September 2017 at 14:50


    The world is turning Japanese. Let’s hope we know how to handle that.

    A typical comment. But so far I never understood what’s so bad when the world turns into one of the richest countries in the world (not to mention the life expectancy, the unemployment rate, and the crime rate).

    I would understand it if people said let’s not turn into Niger (fertility rate > 7) or Somalia (fertility rate > 6). But no, they say Japan!!!

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. September 2017 at 19:10

    Thanks Alec, Check out my new Econlog post (the postscript)

  20. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    25. September 2017 at 09:24

    @Christian: Japan definitely shows that a homogenous, already rich country can do ok with declining growth and population. Can the whole world? We will see.

    The US has lots of problems and that’s with 2% growth. Imagine how the US functions with 0% growth (due to population decline at around the rate of productivity improvement). And the US is a rich country as well.

  21. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. September 2017 at 15:42

    Maybe we are mixing up cause and effect, here? Maybe Japan got this fertility (and growth) rate because it’s so rich.

    I also assume that the real GDP growth per capita is already quite similar between the US and Japan.

Leave a Reply