The recession may be over. And Virginia may be adding jobs again. But the state’s birth rate has not recovered yet, and it continues to fall.
That’s the sound of the future, the birth of new life. But ever since the recession hit, the number of women having babies in Virginia been falling. In the last eight years, the birth rate has fallen eight percent. This mirrors the national trend; one that most people believed was directly tied to the economy.
“It began as a response to the recession. But of course we know that the recession is over and yet the birth rates are staying stubbornly low."
That’s Nan Marie Astone, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
“When birth rates go down and stay down, people initially worry a lot about population aging and then ultimately they might worry about the size of the population actually declining."
From 1996 to 2006, the number of women having children in Virginia was on the rise, year after year. But then the recession hit and the birth rate started to decline. Even long after the recession ended, Virginia’s birth rate — and the national birth rate — continues to fall.
“Usually a recession is accompanied by a decline in birth rates, and then the birth rates of women say in their early 30's goes up in the years following the recession."
But that didn’t happen, and the reason why isn’t clear. Although there are many possible explanations — the decline of marriage, economic uncertainty, changing cultural norms. Whatever the reason, the Census Bureau had to recently cut its population projection for 2050 by about 40 million people.
“Millennials in general have been a lot less sexually active than their parents or possibly even their grandparents, and that’s something that people really hadn’t been expecting or really looking at."
That’s Hamilton Lombard at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
“Overall it’s just been a somewhat different generation. People have been putting off marriage a good deal later than their parents. So I think that some of those births will get made up. But people have been surprised how a lot of people who put off having children in the recession seem to still be putting if off."
Part of the explanation for the lower birth rates could be the decline in teen birth rates in Virginia, although those numbers vary by region.
“Overall across the state the teen birth rate has declined faster than the national average, particularly in inner urban areas and many rural areas but some of the most remote rural areas in Virginia like southwest Virginia haven’t seen those declines."
So what does the declining birth rate mean? Why should anyone care about a statistic? As it turns out, the numbers could end up having a very dramatic influence over time. The Social Security administration warns that the decline in the birth rate could cause the size of the Social Security deficit to double. Frank Shafroth is a professor at George Mason University.
“There are fewer people paying in and more money going out from the federal budget to a larger cohort and more importantly a cohort that’s living longer than any previous generation of Americans."
So here’s the collision, more people living longer and healthier lives than ever — at the same time the birth rate continues to decline. Shafroth says that means state and local governments are going to need to start thinking out of the box.
“Are there ways to keep people working past 65? Can you provide incentives so they stay on that reduces some of the retirement costs for state and local governments and maybe delay Social Security."
If the current trend continues, and the birth rate continues to decline, that could have far-reaching consequences for everything from the labor force to the housing market. Then again, it could be a temporary phenomenon, and all those millennials could end up having children in their 30's.