Baby's face against a dark-black background.

Weekend Long Reads: 2020 Didn’t Bring a Baby Boom

by Kevin Schofield

Every year the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), releases updated statistics on births and fertility rates in the United States, and this week it published figures for 2020. There have been plenty of predictions about what effect the pandemic would have on births, with some (including myself) guessing that with everyone cooped up at home we might see a mini baby boom.

Alas, it was not so. There were 3,605,201 births in the U.S. last year, a 4% drop from 2019. Birth rates declined across all age groups except for the youngest teenagers and the oldest women. Other than a slight bump up in 2014, the number of births in the United States has been steadily dropping since 2007, and 2020 saw the lowest level of births since 1979.

Graph with a blue line depicting the number of births in the millions and a green line depicting the rate of births per 1,000 women aged 15–44 over time. Sourced from NVSS Vital Statistics Rapid Release, Report No.012, May 2021, Births: Provisional Data for 2020.

The Center for Health Statistics also calculates the “total fertility rate” for the United States, an estimate of the number of births that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes. The key benchmark for total fertility rate is the “replacement rate,” the number of births required for a generation to maintain the current population. The replacement rate is 2,100: Above that number and the population is growing; below it and the population shrinks. Last year, the U.S. total fertility rate was 1,637.5, well below the replacement rate. According to the report, it has been below the replacement rate consistently since 2007, and generally since 1971. The continued population growth in the United States, despite the low replacement rate, depends heavily upon robust immigration.

There is some good news in the report as well. Births among teenagers declined again in 2020, continuing a long, steady drop. Also, the preterm birth rate also dropped slightly, for the first time since 2014.

Graph depicting the rate of births per 1,000 females over time, with a light green line representing women aged 15–17 years, a blue line representing 15–19 years, and a dark-green line representing 18–19 years. Sourced from NVSS Vital Statistics Rapid Release, Report No.012, May 2021, Births: Provisional Data for 2020.

More concerning, however, is the rate of cesarean births, which ticked up slightly to 31.8% of all births in 2020 after several years of decline. The rate of “low risk” cesarean births, also increased a bit to 25.9%. Both of these statistics suggest worrying trends in the increase in use of a surgical procedure to deliver babies.

The annual report breaks out the data by age, race/ethnicity, and state. It’s a fascinating look into the future population of our country.

Births: Provisional Data for 2020

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.

Featured image is attributed to David (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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