Oct 4, 2023 - Health

The birth rate ticked up in 2022. Can the reversal last?

Change in birth rates, 2007 to 2022
Data: CDC; Map: Axios Visuals

The nationwide birth rate fell significantly between 2007 and 2022, dropping from 14.3 births per 1,000 people to 11.1, or nearly 23%, per new CDC data.

Driving the news: It declined particularly dramatically in parts of the West and Southwest, with the greatest drop-offs in Utah (-36.2%), Arizona (-36.1%) and Nevada (-34.0%).

Why it matters: The birth rate is a closely watched figure for myriad reasons.

  • It tends to fall as income rises, meaning lower birth rates can be a reflection of greater prosperity at both the national and individual levels. (Many factors drive this, including a sense among wealthier people that they need fewer children to support them financially as they age.)
  • Yet the opposite can also be true, as people who feel they can't afford children choose not to have them.
  • Lower birth rates can also be an indication of better access to contraception, family planning and abortion care.
  • And they tend to be lower in societies with higher rates of women in the workforce — though that relationship is becoming increasingly complicated (it doesn't hold up as well in places with stronger parental leave laws, for example).

Yes, and: Some fear that if the birth rate dips too low, it will bring about a crisis where there are too few young people to care for an aging populace. (This is a particularly salient issue in Japan, which has among the world's oldest populations and where the birth rate fell to a record low last year.)

  • That's in sharp contrast to "Malthusianism" — essentially, the fear that overpopulation will result in too many people and too few resources.
  • While that theory — popular among many social scientists and policymakers in past decades, and which often underpins anti-immigration rhetoric — had faded somewhat, it's seeing a revival among some climate activists who argue the planet can no longer support a growing human presence.

Of note: Births are only one side of the population coin; deaths and immigration/emigration also play key roles.

The intrigue: In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the birth rate was steadily declining year over year (except for a slight bump in 2014).

  • While it dropped from 11.4 in 2019 to 11.0 in 2020, it remained flat in 2021 — and even ticked up slightly in 2022, to 11.1.
U.S. birth rate, 2009 to 2022
Data: CDC; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, but: The number of births increased only slightly from 2021 to 2022, from 3.66 million to 3.67 million.

  • The overall population, however, decreased from 333.3 million to 331.9 million. Fewer people + relatively constant number of births = larger birth rate.
  • Ultimately, the COVID-era leveling-off and the 2022 uptick in birth rates may only be a "short-term deviation from an ongoing trend of considerably greater importance," as a Brookings Institution report put it.

The bottom line: It'll take a few more years before the pandemic's impact on birth rates is fully understood. In the meanwhile, it seems likely the overall rate will resume its downward trend as post-pandemic normality continues settling in.

Go deeper