Utah’s total fertility rate dropped again in 2022, continuing a longtime flat or downward trend that has also been true nationally.

A new fact sheet released Wednesday by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute says the Beehive State’s total fertility rate decreased 3.4% from 1.919 in 2021 to 1.853 in 2022. The replacement rate, which is the number of births per woman of childbearing age at which the population would replace itself, is 2.1 births.

Nationally, the total fertility rate is now 1.656.

There are several different calculations offered to explain trends in births, but the total fertility rate provides the most nuance, because it looks at births within different age groups, showing how that changes, said Emily Harris, senior demographer at the institute. The total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman will have if she makes it through all of her childbearing years, generally considered to be age 15 to 44 or 15 to 49, depending on who has calculated. It is the sum of the age-specific fertility rates.

Utah used to have the highest fertility rate; the state is now No. 4, behind South Dakota (2.012), Nebraska (1.939) and Alaska (1.885). The Utah rate has been flat or dropping for 14 years. The report said the decline is largely due to fertility declines among young women, ages 20 to 24, noting the “sharpest fertility decline” in that group since before 2010.

The report notes that there was a slight increase among women 40 to 44 and the rate for women 35 to 39 remained flat. Among younger ages, the total fertility rate has decreased.

The report notes that “economic factors such as housing and child care costs and broader social factors like postponement of marriage and childbearing all influence fertility rate declines.”

According to Harris, fertility levels have a long-term impact on societies and their age structure; some societies have a lot of young people and some a lot of old people. “That’s important, because these different populations need different kinds of support , different economic structures,” she told Deseret News.

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If total fertility is very high, it can be hard to care for and support all the young people. If the rate is too low, there may not be enough young people and resources to support the aging population. That has been an emerging problem in many countries, including South Korea, China and Japan, among others.

America’s fertility varies

Harris said that despite many people thinking Utah has the highest fertility rate, it hasn’t been true since about 2016. “We don’t really have any reason to suspect that Utah will go back to being No. 1, either. And Utah is also fairly close to moving down to No. 6 or 7. Is that a problem? Is it not a problem? I don’t know.”

She points out that we can have more births and still have a lower fertility rate. In 2021, the number of Utah births went up, while the total fertility rate was unchanged. A downward trend means that in proportion to the female population of childbearing age, the number is going down.

When the birth rate declines, immigration can make up the difference. But Harris said it’s easier to bring people in on a state level and people in the U.S. do often move around. Nationally, it’s a bit more complicated because of U.S. immigration policy.

“But there are other levers you can pull for supporting a population that don’t just revolve around fertility,” Harris said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the states and the District of Columbia saw decreased total fertility from 2021 to 2022. The nation’s lowest fertility rates are in Washington, D.C., at 1.243 live births per woman of childbearing age, Vermont at 1.352 and Oregon at 1.390. But the report noted that “many of the Intermountain West states continue their trends of sharply declining fertility rates compared to other regions of the nation.”

Among those, Utah’s 3.4% decline was the largest. Nationally, the District of Columbia’s 7.2% decrease was the biggest annual drop, followed by a 5.2% decrease in total fertility in North Dakota. Texas fertility increased 1.9% and Delaware increased 1.8%. The other states with increases were New Jersey (1.3%), and Maryland and Florida, both at 1.4%.

The impact of fertility

Over time, having higher or lower fertility makes a difference on many fronts, from entrepreneurship and whether there’s a robust workforce to how well an economy performs. Having too few working-age people to support the safety net for an older generation puts greater pressure on those who are working or means a reduction in services and resources for older people.

It can impact whether you have someone to buy your home when you want to cash out, where schools are placed and even what kind of jobs are available. Lyman Stone, a demographer and scholar with the Institute for Family Studies, has on several occasions told Deseret News that ramifications include being lonelier as you age to economic stagnation and greater inequality, among others.

The declining fertility rate is coming at a time, too, when people are living longer overall, Harris pointed out. In Utah, for example, it was for a long time common to have about 20 centenarians in the state at a given time. The projection is that within 50 years, there will be several thousand at any point in time.

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Fertility, Harris said, is an area where it’s hard to be proactive because it has “slow-moving impact.” But over 50 years, the impact of fertility rates — assuming the trend continues — will play out, along with anything done to try to influence fertility, such as incentives to have kids or policies that say don’t have kids.

A 2017 United Nations Population Facts report noted that countries with fertility below the replacement level tend to enact policies designed to boost fertility, while those with higher fertility may try to lower the rate.

A really important piece, Harris said, is the intentions that drive fertility trends. “As fertility is continuing to decline, we really need to tease out why. Is this because people want fewer children or do they want to wait longer before adding a first child? Or is it because they can’t afford to have a child or they can’t afford to have more than one?”

She said, “We’re at this point where we really need to start having more research and survey work done on these fertility intentions and what are these actual pinch points that potentially could be addressed if we wanted to change fertility rates.”

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