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U.S. Population Growth Slowing, Fertility Rate Declining

by Leigh Ann Woodruff, May 20, 2012

Declining fertility rates are one of the factors driving a decline in U.S. population growth, according to a Population Reference Bureau (PRB) analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Lower immigration levels and population aging are additional factors in declining population growth.

According to the analysis, from 2010 to 2011, the U.S. population grew 0.7 percent after averaging 0.9 percent each year from 2000 to 2010.

"There's two parts of this," says Mark Mather, PRB associate vice president for Domestic Programs. "There's the declining fertility rate, which is the number of births per woman, and there's the declining total number of births, which is a different issue and sometimes caused by other factors, including trends in immigration. If there's fewer people living in the United States who are of reproductive age, then that can also contribute to a decline in the number of births just because there's fewer potential parents."

The analysis found:

  • Drop in immigration. Between 2010 and 2011, net migration was estimated at around 700,000, down from 1.4 million per year in 2000 and 2001.
  • Aging population.Between 2010 and 2011, the number of children declined by 190,000, while the number of elderly increased by 917,000. Also down is growth in the number of working-age adults, including those in prime childbearing ages.
  • Declining fertility rates. There were an estimated 4 million births between 2010 and 2011, down from 4.2 million at the recent peak of U.S. population growth between 2005 and 2006. Replacement level fertility, or the number of births that the population has to have for parents to replace themselves with their kids, is a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 kids per family. The TFR "has hovered right around 2.1 for some time, dropping to a low of around 1.7 in the early 1970s, but it rebounded a bit in the 80s and 90s and 2000s," Mather says. "And now it looks like we're down to around 1.9 in 2010, 2011."

Mather says declining fertility rates are being attributed mostly the economic downturn. "If you look historically at trends in fertility in the United States during the depression, for example, or during the early 1970s when the economy goes south, we've seen these declines in the past and so in terms of the actual fertility rates, we think that's linked to people just being more uncertain about their economic futures. We suspect it's a conscious choice to delay childbearing because of economic circumstances. "

While the United States could start to resemble countries in Europe with aging populations and declining fertility, Mather says demographers aren't too concerned about this latest shift in U.S. demographics. "I don't think that anyone is particularly worried about this," he says. "In and of itself, it doesn't have any major implications.

"The United States is still growing at a fairly rapid pace," he continues. "Even though the fertility rate is dropping, we have this relatively young population, and there's a lot of young people having kids. The U.S. is still going to keep growing — the population isn't predicted to actually fall for decades. This is [just] potentially putting us on a different demographic path for the next generation, for our kids and grandchildren. It could change the way the United States looks in the future.

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