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"Birthrates Decline in the U.S." - Erin K. Anderson, Ph.D. | September 2021

Washington College


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When the United States entered a period of lockdown in April 2020, many people predicted there would be a baby boom nine months later. Not only was there no spike in birth rates, but the birthrate also fell by 4% (Hamilton et al 2021). The U.S. birthrate hasn’t reached a replacement level since the 1970s, but it has experienced greater than usual declines for the past six years. The drop in birthrate holds across all ages and racial and ethnic identities.

Declining birth rates pose a number of economic challenges for a population. When a birthrate falls below replacement level, it affects the ratio of workers to retirees, leaving a smaller pool of people in the workforce to support a growing elderly population reliant on Social Security and Medicare programs. Smaller numbers of workers also mean fewer taxpayers contributing to the state and federal systems that support a variety of public needs. Additionally, a shrinking pool of workers may mean a slowdown in the GDP and overall economic growth.

In investigating why women are having fewer children, it becomes clear economics significantly influences a number of family trends. The median age at first marriage in the United States is at its highest recorded level, 29.8 years old for men and 28 years old for women in 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau 2020a). Couples are generally marrying at later ages as they focus on education, establishing careers, and achieving some financial stability before saying “I do.” Couples are also delaying having children for many of the same reasons. While the average age of new parents is 26 for women and 31 for men (Bui and Miller 2018), married couples tend to be older when they become parents. Aside from delays in marriage and childbirth, many women are having fewer children than they had planned or are choosing to remain childfree.

The decision whether to have children and, if so, when and how many, is impacted by educational plans, early careers, and financial status, as well as increasing concerns about the recent economic recessions, the cost of housing, access to paid parental leave, the affordability of unpaid Family and Medical Leave, and the cost of childcare (Miller 2018). The average sale price of houses sold in the United States in 2020 was over $380,000 (Statista 2021), a considerable stretch for many families given that the median household income in 2019 was $68,700 (U.S. Census 2020b). While the United States has no national paid parental leave, nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted state-level policies. In the remaining 41 states, paid parental leave policies are at the discretion of employers. Only about 35% of U.S. employees work for companies that offer some form of paid parental leave (Kaiser Family Foundation 2020). The Family and Medical Leave Act provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents, but given the policy restrictions, only about 56% of employees are eligible to take this leave (Brown et al. 2020). However, many workers who are eligible are unable to afford to take unpaid leave. Once a child is born, a family can anticipate spending between $9,000 and $15,000 or more each year for childcare (Workman and Jessen-Howard 2018). In addition to these financial costs and opportunity costs associated with careers, families are increasingly concerned with social and physical issues such as the political climate, gun violence, and climate change (Gibson 2019).

With easy access to a variety of forms of contraception today, women have greater control over their childbearing. Quantitative and qualitative data from recent years indicates that women are making deliberate choices to have fewer children than previous generations and are doing so based on economic, social, and environmental conditions. While some of the influential factors may be particular to specific individuals or couples, it is likely that a number of social and workplace policies and economic trends could impact the future trajectory of childbearing. Paid parental leave, safe and affordable childcare, and homebuyer assistance programs are just a few resources that may encourage families to grow.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What policy recommendations would you make that might encourage families to have children?
  2. If the birthrate in the United States is in decline, how important do you think immigration will be in promoting population growth?


Brown, S., J. Herr, R. Roy, and J.A. Klerman. 2020. “Employee and Worksite Perspectives of the FMLA: Who is Eligible?” Produced for the U.S. Department of labor, Chief Evaluation Office. Rockville, MD: Abt Associates Inc. 

Bui, Q. and C.C. Miller. 2018. “The Age That Women Have Babies: How a Gap Divides America” The New York Times, August 4.

Gibson, C. 2019. “Deciding whether to have kids has never been more complex. Enter parenthood-indecision therapists.” The Washington Post, March 17.

Hamilton, BE, JA Martin, MJK Osterman. 2021. Births: Provision Data for 2020. Vital Statistics Rapid Release; No. 12. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. May.

Kaiser Family Foundation. 2020. “Paid Family and Sick Leave in the U.S.”,that%20offer%20paid%20parental%20leave.

Miller, C.C.. 2018. “Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why.” The New York Times, July 5.

Statista. 2021. U.S. House Prices: Average Sales Price of New Homes Sold 1965-2021.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2020a. “Estimated Media Age at First Marriage by Sex: 1890 to Present.”

U.S. Census Bureau. 2020b. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2019”,and%20Table%20A%2D1).

Workman, S. and S. Jessen-Howard. 2018. “Understanding the True Cost of Child Care for Infants and Toddlers.” Center for American Progress, November, 15. 

About the Author

Erin K. Anderson is the Associate Professor of Sociology at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland where she has taught for 17 years. She received her B.S. in Political Science from Boise State University and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University. She regularly teaches courses on gender, family, social psychology, and social theory. She is the author of several articles and book chapters related to gender, family, identity, and teaching and learning as well as co-editor of Family-Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe. She is active with the Eastern Sociological Society and an editor with the American Sociological Association’s Teaching Resources and Innovations Library in Sociology (TRAILS).

Profile Photo of Erin K. Anderson