Lamenting America’s declining birth rate has become a regular ritual among America’s conservative commentators, who see the trend as a threat to the long-term economic sustainability of the social safety net as well as the traditional family structure. The most recent round of concern was kicked off by a Pew Research Center report that found births per 1,000 women of childbearing age hit a record low of 63.2 in 2011. That stat was picked up in a New York Times op-ed piece and subsequent blog post by conservative writer Ross Douthat, with additional encouragement from other commentators who joined in.
In fact, lower birth rates actually correlate with a whole host of positive social and economic trends, such as increased female literacy, increased job opportunities for women, overall national wealth, and women gaining greater control over their own reproduction. So decrying dropping birth rates — especially when it’s conservatives doing the mourning — comes awfully close to pining for past decades when women were far less equal.
But there’s an even more practical issue with this latest round of worries over the “birth dearth” — it’s focusing on the wrong statistic. Douthat’s number comes from the general fertility rate, which calculates annual births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. The Population Reference Bureau explains that the total fertility rate, or “the average number of children women would bear in their lifetimes if the pace of childbearing remained constant for the long term,” is actually a more appropriate measure:
The U.S. population is “older” now than it was in the past—we have more older people than younger people—and that includes a smaller proportion of younger women in the childbearing population than before.
So, when we think about birth rate trends, we should really be using the total fertility rate (TFR). The TFR is “blind”—unaffected by age structure—and in showing the implied number of children women would have at today’s rate, is directly comparable over the years: apples to apples. This may be a tad confusing, but consider this: If the pace of childbearing were the same today as it was in 1976, the U.S. would have had 3.7 million births instead of the 3.9 million it did have.
And 1976, not 2011, is when the total fertility rate hit its lowest point. It’s been on a steady rise since, arguably clearing the “replacement rate” — the level needed to keep the U.S. population from declining — in 2006. It dropped again in response to the recession, but that’s a typical and temporary reaction to hard economic times.
Even using the total fertility rate to calculate birth rates may be low-balling it. The best the TFR can do is anticipate how many children an average woman would have as she passes through all the years of her reproductive life, using the current rates of U.S. births for those various stages. But if more and more women have delayed childbirth over the last few decades, shifting the birth rate’s center of gravity to older women, then actual birth rates will be higher than what the TFR anticipates. In recent years, in fact, that’s exactly what’s been happening: