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Nation & World

U.S. Birthrate Drops To Lowest Level In Four Decades

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Happy Mother's Day. And what a year it has been for mothers in particular. In just the latest jobs report out Friday, the number of women in the workforce dropped last month again, and that's after one third of all those who lost their jobs this pandemic were mothers, many of whom had to stay home with remote kids. And those who were able to keep their jobs - well, they still bore the brunt of keeping the house running and the kids learning while a dangerous disease was swirling around. In a moment, we'll hear from mothers about the stress and some of the clarity and joy this exceptional year brought.

But first, given the challenges, it's no surprise that just maybe - maybe women were not in the mood to have kids this past year. Last year, the number of babies born in the U.S. fell to its lowest level in four decades, but the birth rate had been declining for six years before that. Amy Blackstone is a sociology professor at the University of Maine who studies fertility rates. And she joins us now from Minneapolis to talk about what the numbers may mean. Thank you so much for joining us.

AMY BLACKSTONE: Happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to know your takeaway from these low birth numbers.

BLACKSTONE: We should take a breath and not worry about it. Birth rates have gone up and down at least for as long as we've been tracking birth rates, but I don't think that that means doom and gloom for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that is a controversial takeaway because a lot of the things that I've been reading have been all about how this is going to spell the end of American productivity, the end of, you know, women as sort of caregivers. I mean, I've read all sorts of hot takes. So why do you think this is not something we should be worried about?

BLACKSTONE: I think that our focus is in the wrong place, to be honest with you. So if you look at birth rates globally, we really do not have a problem of too few people in the world. In fact, most of us would argue that we have a problem of too many people. So if that's true, then what we're really talking about is a concern about the population within our national borders. One option that has been bandied about that I think we should take seriously is supporting parents in the work that they do. And if we did that - if we had policies that were more supportive of families with children, lo and behold, more people might opt into parenthood. The other thing I think that we need to think very seriously about is changing our immigration policies so that we welcome more people in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What we've seen is that a lot of women are delaying having children to later on in their careers. So is there any indication here that women are exercising more control over their lives by delaying or deciding not to have children?

BLACKSTONE: One of the things that people talk about when we're looking at birth rates is, oh, my God, millennials aren't having enough kids. And you've said already, Lulu, the issue is that people are delaying childbearing. They're having kids later. So I think the jury is still out on whether or when millennials will have children.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why would immigration help childbirth?

BLACKSTONE: There's the issue of the birth rate. The other is that I think the reason we're concerned about the birth rate is that our economy relies on at least a replacement fertility rate in order for it to continue to run. So the issue is, you know, we need more people in our national borders. But simply welcoming in more people who will contribute to the economy, who will be workers in our economy is a solution that I think we should take seriously. And I also think the reason that we're not taking it seriously is that what we're really talking about here when we talk about birth rates is race. I think the concern that people don't want to say out loud is that women who are white and upper and middle class are having fewer children, and those are the babies (laughter) that some people want to see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, does that bear out? Is that really the trend line that we're seeing - that a lot of the sort of contraction has been among white, wealthier women?

BLACKSTONE: It does bear out. I mean, white, wealthier women have lower birth rates than women of color and women of lower social classes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think the effect of this past year has been? Because, clearly, it has not been a pleasant time for mothers, speaking as one.

BLACKSTONE: Right. I mean, I think the pandemic has revealed this ugly truth that we already knew, but we're feeling it in all kinds of different ways - that we don't support parents in the job of raising children in the way that we should, at least if we believe to be true what we claim is true, which is that we want people to have kids and that we love children. We've already known that women bear the brunt of labor in the household, but that has become even more visible as women who are at home are working to juggle the labor of the household in addition to their paid labor in addition to, you know, facilitating their children's education. So it's just become even more clear that we have a problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some in the media and elsewhere were surprised by the fact that the pandemic - being locked up with your spouse and wearing the same clothes ad nauseum and having to home-school the kids - did not end up in a sort of burst of fertility. Why do you think people were surprised by the fact that the fertility dipped last year?

BLACKSTONE: Those of us who study the child-free choice certainly weren't surprised that we didn't have a baby boom. I mean, we have this magical scientific invention called birth control that we can use. And to your point - you know, in the same clothes every day, they just want to get some sleep. So probably making a new human being is not top of mind anyway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amy Blackstone is a sociology professor at the University of Maine. Thank you very much.

BLACKSTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.