Economics study probes ups, downs of U.S. fertility rates
Many factors have led to the decline in U.S. fertility rates over the last 200 years, but education and its influence on lifestyles is among today’s leading contributors, according to Clemson University economics professors in the College of Business.
In their research, “Secular Fertility Declines, Baby Booms and Economic Growth: International Evidence,” Robert Tamura and Curtis Simon of the John E. Walker Department of Economics found many factors influenced the ups and more recent downs of fertility rates in the U.S. since the 1800s.
“In 1800, the typical American woman had eight children during her reproductive years, compared to the historical low today of about 1.8 children per woman,” Tamura said. “But in 1800, the infant mortality rate was about 20 percent, compared to .6 percent today. In a world where a child has barely a three in five chance of living to the age of 15, parents typically have more children. In that era, parents expected adult children would take care of them in their later years.”
As cities began improving sanitary conditions in the late 19th century by installing sewer systems, mortality rates began declining, Tamura said. “With the advent of sewer systems and treated water, health conditions improved, as did nutritional values. All had an impact on the mortality rates, more so than the effect improved medicine brought.”
Tamura and Simon’s research also showed that baby booms occurring in the U.S. and developed countries generally coincided with an increase in the amount of time its citizens spent in school.
“In 1800, the average amount of time a person spent in school in the U.S. was 4.9 years. By 1930, schooling years had risen to 10.2 years. And at the peak of the U.S. Baby Boom (1957), that number had risen to 12.3 years of schooling,” he said. “The population’s move from cities to more expansive and lower-priced suburban living contributed to the baby boom, along with the addition of the interstate highway system.”
But more recently, fertility rates in the U.S. have continued to decline. Reports from the National Center for Health Statistics indicates fertility numbers are now at the lowest ever measured in the U.S., at 1.8 children, and Tamura doesn’t see an uptick in those numbers anytime soon.
“Many factors figure into the low fertility rates we have today. The typical woman today in the U.S. has almost 15 years of schooling. Looking further down the road, of the girls born in 2000, 60 percent will be college graduates,” he said. “That results in more career opportunities, especially during good economic times. And for those with a career mindset, having children no longer becomes a priority.”
Tamura added that modern contraception, and an unforgiving job market for those who forego careers during child-rearing years have also contributed to a lower fertility rate.
“Fewer people find their social network involves other members of their own church. Fewer voices today present parenting as a calling or vocation. Today, many people find fulfillment with work and colleagues. When you figure in the expense of having a family, including the time off work that is often needed, for many the choice becomes career over having children.”
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