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Shrinking Economy Puts Baby on Hold

The Last Four U.S. Recessions Have Been Followed by Declines in the Country’s Fertility Rate
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By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 14, 2008 -- Maternity wards may get a bit quieter in about nine months.

That's because recessions and babies apparently don't mix. It's been true for the last four recessions, and experts are predicting a similar downturn now. There's plenty of bad economic news out there: the crisis on Wall Street, record foreclosures, high prices for gas and food. A recent study by the American Psychological Association showed that 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy.

At times like this, demographers say, Americans postpone starting a family and think twice about adding a baby to a family that is already struggling.

Tony Marks, a mortgage broker in Florida, and his wife, a schoolteacher, have been married for just over two years. "We honestly thought we'd have kids by now, but have put it on hold because of financial issues," says Marks, who is 31.

His industry has been hit hard, and the couple have lost a lot in their retirement accounts because of the stock market slide. Also, they are helping his wife's sister, who is struggling to pay her mortgage and can't sell her home because she owes more than it is worth.

"The economy has definitely affected our plans for starting a family," he says.

Recessions and Babies: A Costly Proposition

It's no surprise couples may be thinking twice: The annual cost of raising a child is between $10,930 and $12,030, according to the most recent estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture. These estimates are for a child living in a middle-income family with two kids and two adults.

In current times, many couples also must evaluate the cost of fertility treatments. In vitro fertilization costs on average more than $12,000.

Although some doctors say they haven't yet seen a change in patient load, demographers stress that the results won't be apparent for a while -- pregnancy after all lasts on average 38 weeks. Couples report that money concerns are an increasingly big part of family planning discussions.

Recession and Babies: A History Lesson

Although a number of factors, including demographic and social trends, contribute to the fertility rate (the number of babies born per year per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44), the economy also appears to affect the numbers.

The last four recessions in the United States have been followed by a dip in the fertility rate, according to economic data from the National Bureau of Economic Research and fertility data from the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the CDC.

  • In the early 1970s, a recession lasted from November 1973 until March 1975. The fertility rate, 68.8 in 1973, fell for the next three years, bottoming out at 65 in 1976, the year after the recession ended. It climbed again the next year.
  • The early '80s brought more tough times. The economy was officially in a recession from January 1980 to July 1980 and again from July 1981 until November 1982. The fertility rate was 68.4 in 1980 and fell for the next four years to 65.5 in 1984. It increased again in 1985.
  • In July 1990, the country fell into a recession that lasted until March 1991. The fertility rate, which had been climbing throughout the late '80s, hit 70.9 in 1990, the highest rate in nearly two decades. However, the next year, following the recession, it started falling again and declined to 63.6 in 1997.
  • After the dot-com bust, the country was in a recession from March 2001 until November 2001. Again, fertility rates dipped the next year, falling from 65.3 in 2001 to 64.8 in 2002.
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