Predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a baby boomlet have fizzled. But the number of births and the general fertility rate did climb slightly in 2021 for the first time since 2014.
The United States saw a 1% increase in births compared to 2020. And the general fertility rate climbed 1% as well, to 56.6 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, which is considered childbearing age.
Though the increase is tiny, it’s a notable change from the 4% drop in both births and general fertility during the first year of the pandemic — and the first increase in years. The number of births had declined by about 2% a year from 2014 to 2020, including that more recent 4% drop.
More than 3.6 million babies — 3,659,289, to be exact — were born in 2021, according to a new provisional data report on 2021 from the National Center for Health Statistics in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data includes more than 99% of birth certificates recorded in 2021, the pandemic’s second year.
Among key findings:
- Birthrates dropped among young women, ages 15-24, rose for women 25-49 and didn’t change for adolescents in 2021.
- The birthrate for teenagers 15-19 declined by 6% in 2021 to 14.4 births per 1,000 females. That follows a long trend of declines every year since 1991, except for 2006 and 2007.
- The cesarean delivery rate increased to just under 1 in 3 births in 2021. The low-risk cesarean rate increased to 26.3%.
- The preterm birth rate rose 4% in 20201, to 10.48% — the highest rate since 2007.
The report says that the provisional number of births rose 2% for non-Hispanic white and Hispanic women and declined 2% for non-Hispanic Black women. It declined by 3% for non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaskan Native women and non-Hispanic Asian women.
The general fertility rate rose 1% for Hispanic women and 4% for non-Hispanic white women and declined 1% for non-Hispanic Asian women, 3% for non-Hispanic Black women and 4% for non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native women between 2020 and 2021.
The total fertility rate for the United States in 2021 was 1,663.5 births per 1,000 women, also a 1% increase over the previous year. That number estimates the total number of births a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes, based on the age-specific birth rate in a given year.
It remains well below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman. The U.S. rate has been generally below replacement since 1971 — and consistently below since 2007, the report says.
Why births matter
Experts have repeatedly said that the declining birthrate is cause for concern about the future in the United States — and other countries are experiencing it, as well.
“Experts speculate ramifications exist for schools, for the economy, for building personal wealth and even for personal relationships, with different effects for the young, middle-aged or old,” as the Deseret New reported last year.
Demographer Lyman Stone, a scholar with both the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, worries most that women will not be able to have the number of children they desire.
A survey by YouGov for the institute and BYU’s Wheatley Institution bears that out. The Deseret News recently reported on the 2021 poll, which showed “the biggest drag on reaching desired fertility is the hunt for the right spouse or partner. That led the list of reasons people weren’t reaching their desired fertility, at 44% — and was even higher among childless adults — followed by 36% who said they couldn’t afford children, and 25% who said lifestyle or career were barriers. Thirteen percent said they had trouble conceiving, while 16% said they were not yet done having children.”
Stone and Pam S. Perlich, the director of demographic research for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News that robust family growth helps the nation thrive — often in ways folks don’t consider — from strengthening the economy to boosting entrepreneurship and letting adults accumulate wealth they will one day pass on to help a new generation.
Without children, they say, education institutions die off and innovation swindles. The stock market falters without people to buy products that give businesses value. And the housing market depends on successive generations so people can sell when they’re ready and new families can launch.