News & Events

Droopy Economy Helps Explain Lagging Birthrate in Iowa, U.S.

Iowa’s economy is starting to rebound from the recession, but the state still lags in production of a key commodity: babies.

Iowa women gave birth to 38,686 babies last year, up a bit from 38,204 in 2011. But the total was still down more than 5 percent from the 40,835 Iowa babies born in 2007, the year before the economy went south.

The preliminary 2012 figures, released this month by the Iowa Department of Public Health, indicate that Iowa’s birthrate was 12.6 babies born for every 1,000 Iowa residents. That compares with 13.7 in 2007. If Iowa’s birthrate had stayed steady, the state would have seen nearly 9,000 more babies born over the past five years.

The Iowa trends mirror those being reported nationally. Federal officials say 3.96 million babies were born in the United States last year, essentially the same number as in 2011. That was down from more than 4.3 million babies born in 2007.

Alice Schoonbroodt, a University of Iowa economics professor who studies such trends, said it makes sense that birthrates continue to be unusually low. The Great Recession technically ended in 2009, but many Americans remain uneasy, she said.

“This recession is very slow to recover in lots of measures, and fertility may just be one of them,” she said. “To have a child, you want to have confidence that times are going to be good for the long term.”

Schoonbroodt can point to herself as an example. On Aug. 2, she gave birth to a daughter, Michelle, who is her first child. The professor is 36, which is older than the age at which she’d planned to become a mother. But she delayed pregnancy until after she landed a secure job at the University of Iowa in 2011.

Schoonbroodt noted that birthrates have been declining for many decades, punctuated by temporary booms and busts that often are associated with economic times. In the 1850s, American women gave birth on average to nearly six children. That average dropped to about three by the mid-1920s, then fell to just above two during the Great Depression. The average rebounded to more than three during the baby boom of the 1950s and ’60s, then fell again to around two during the 1970s. It now is slightly less than two.

The accessibility of birth control is often cited as an explanation, but it’s not the only one. Schoonbroodt said women who have more education tend to have fewer children, and American women have made strong gains on that front over the decades. Also, she said, many women are waiting longer to start families, which could lead to them having fewer children.

However, she noted that modern medical advances allow many women to have children into their 40s. That means women who delay motherhood because of the current economic turmoil are less likely to face the heartbreak endured by many women who were unable to have as many children as they wanted because they delayed starting families during the Depression.

Schoonbroodt expects a minor baby boom in future years, but she’s unsure when it will appear. Fertility rates have stayed down longer after some economic rough patches than after others. For example, she said, birthrates were down for more than a decade during and after the Depression. Of course, the post-Depression years included World War II, during which many couples also delayed marriage or pregnancy.

Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, said national data suggest a birthrate turnaround could be near.

“We’re still seeing overall declines, but the declines are getting much, much smaller, making us wonder if we’re hitting bottom,” she said.

In the long run, many economists worry that declining birthrates would mean few working-age adults to support hordes of retirees. Japan and parts of Europe are struggling with that problem because many couples in recent decades decided to have no kids or just one.

Iowa, however, is more than replacing its population. Last year’s 38,686 births were 37 percent more than the state’s 28,301 deaths.

Return to top of page