The U.S. birth rate fell again in 2016, marking a new all-time low, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news is that the decline is largely attributable to a continued drop in teen births, which also hit a historic low in 2016. The bad news, if you listen to some alarmists, is that the U.S. could someday fall below the population replacement rate, leading to a contracting workforce and a stalled economy. “Some demographers are freaking out,” according to the Washington Post, and “the United States is in the midst of what some worry is a baby crisis” that could turn into a “national emergency.”
But there’s no need to fire up that Handmaid’s Tale emergency Canada escape vehicle just yet! The 2016 fertility rate was 62 births for every 1,000 women of reproductive age in the U.S., a 1 percent drop from the previous year. There are still more babies arriving than people dying, and the birth rate among women in the 35- to 44-year-old age group is rising fast.
In fact, for the first time ever, women in their 30s are having more kids than women in their 20s. Right now, the highest birth rate is in the 30 to 34 age group, with the 25 to 29 group barely behind. The birthrate in the 20 to 24 age group used to be about even with the rate of 25- to 29-year-olds but started falling around 2000 and has more or less decreased ever since, making an even sharper downturn around 2007. The average age of first birth was 21 in 1970; it’s now 26.3, thanks in part to growing social acceptance of older motherhood and a growing menu of fertility-assistance options for women who want to get pregnant later.
But perhaps the biggest contributor to the declining birth rate is increased access to more reliable forms of contraception. The teen birth rate has dropped 67 percent since 1991 and 51 percent since 2007 alone, even as teens reported no significant change in their abstinence or sexual activity. Research has attributed much of the drop in the teen pregnancy rate to growing contraceptive use and access to easier-to-use, more effective forms of birth control.
Recent numbers show the teen birth decline is getting steeper: In 2015, the rate fell 8 percent, and the new CDC numbers indicate a 9 percent drop in 2016. This is unequivocally a good thing. Around 8 in 10 teen pregnancies are unplanned, and only half of teen mothers graduate from high school by age 22. Programs that offer free and low-cost IUDs to teenagers—such as those in Delaware and Colorado—have helped the proportion of mothers who want to be mothers grow. People who fear a falling birth rate can advocate for policies like universal paid parental leave if they’re scared for the U.S. economy, but let the teens keep their contraception.