US fertility reaches 35-year high

Posted: 5 February 2008

For the first time in 35 years, the US fertility rate has climbed high enough to sustain a stable population, solidifying the nation's unique status among industrialised countries, reports Rod Stein in the Washington Post.

The overall fertility rate increased 2 per cent between 2005 and 2006, nudging the average number of babies being born to each woman to 2.1, according to the latest federal statistics. That marks the first time since 1971 that the rate has reached a crucial benchmark of population growth: the ability of each generation to replace itself.

While the rising fertility rate was unwelcome news to some environmentalists, the "replacement rate" is generally considered desirable by demographers and sociologists, says Stein, because it means a country is producing enough young people to replace and support ageing workers without population growth being so high it taxes national resources.

Complex reasons

"This is a noteworthy event," said John Bongaarts of the Population Council, a New York-based think tank. "This is a sign of demographic health. Many countries would like to be at this level."

Europe, Japan and other industrialized countries have long had fertility rates far below the replacement level, creating the prospect of labour shortages and loss of cultural identity as the proportion of native-born residents shrinks in relation to immigrant populations. In contrast, many developing nations' birthrates far exceed the replacement rate, fueling poverty and social unrest.

"Over the long term you can't have significant continued growth or continued decline," said S. Philip Morgan, a Duke University sociologist. "Neither one is sustainable."

The reasons for the unusual US fertility rate are the focus of intense interest. Experts can only speculate, but they cite a complex mix of factors, including lower levels of birth control use than in other developed countries, widely held religious values that encourage childbearing, social conditions that make it easier for women to work and have families, and a growing Hispanic population.

"It's not clear which of these factors is most important," Bongaarts said.

The nation's total fertility rate hit a high of nearly 3.8 in the United States in 1957 during the postwar Baby Boom. But it fell sharply through the 1960s and 1970s with the introduction of the birth control pill and other trends, including women delaying childbearing to attend college and pursue a career. The rate dipped below replacement level in 1972 and hit a low of 1.7 in 1976, but it started rising again in the late 1970s. It climbed steadily through the 1980s, hovering close to but never hitting the replacement rate throughout the '90s. The population rose steadily nevertheless, however, because, in part, of immigration.

Although many European countries offer women incentives to have children, such as providing lengthy paid maternity leave, guaranteeing their jobs and subsidizing child care, the efforts have had limited impact.

Population momentuml

"It's widely accepted in the United States that women can have this balance," said Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington research organization. "I'm not sure that's true in some European countries, such as Germany, where there may still be more of a stigma attached to women working and having families."

Whatever the cause, the fertility rate combined with increased immigration is likely to continue to fuel growth of the US population, experts said.

"We have a lot of population momentum in this country because we have so many young people who themselves are going to soon be having 2.1 children," Mather said. "We're going to be growing for quite some time at a fairly fast pace."

But not everyone sees that as encouraging, given that the United States remains a leading consumer of increasingly scarce natural resources.

"The world is now consuming resources faster than the Earth can sustain over the longer term," said Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. "Forests are shrinking. Fisheries are collapsing. Water tables are falling. Large parts of the world's grasslands are deteriorating. The U.S. is already disproportionately responsible for that because of our very high consumption levels."

Source: Washingtom Post, December 21, 2007.

Editor's note: The population of the United States is projected to grow from 302 million in 2007 to 350 million in 2025 and 420 million in 2050 (Population Reference Bureau).

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