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People are having fewer children for both personal and practical reasons, a three-person panel said Thursday morning.
Economics are contributing to declining fertility rates in Utah and across the country, but some people simply don’t want children, Emily Harris said during a panel discussion at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City. The event was co-sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune and Gardner, as part of their quarterly “Storytelling Through Data” conversation series.
Harris, a senior demographer at Gardner and a mother of two, said she’s seen more people make the conscious decision to not have children for various personal reasons. But she also has friends who want more kids and can’t afford them.
Two other panelists agreed it’s a combination of heads and hearts leading to those decisions and theorized younger couples are now thinking about the cost of children or deciding they’d rather spend time traveling or doing something other than having children.
Regardless of the reason, Utah’s total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman will have between the ages of 15 and 49 — has declined by double digits since 2010 even though it remains the fourth highest in the country.
There’s good news and bad news in the data, said Derek Monson, chief growth officer at the family-focused Sutherland Institute and a father of three.
It’s good there are fewer teen pregnancies, he said, but there are concerning long-term implications related to elder care and maintaining Social Security and Medicare.
The U.S. could look to European countries that have implemented supports for parents and families like credits and longer paid leave, Harris said, but it takes a long time to see impacts.
Emily Bell McCormick, who founded and leads The Policy Project, said there needs to be more education about the benefits of having children.
McCormick, a mother of five, also said policymakers need to find innovative ways to make sure workplaces accommodate the “ebbs and flows of a natural lifetime” like women leaving and re-entering the workforce after having children.
Fertility declined in every state in the last decade
Fertility has declined nationally and in Utah almost every year since the Great Recession in 2008, according to a report from Gardner.
An initial decrease in fertility, home buying and other major life decisions isn’t unusual in times of uncertainty, Harris said, but there usually is a rebound once things start to settle. That hasn’t happened for fertility, she said.
Between 2010 and 2020, the country’s total fertility rate declined 15%.
Utah’s total fertility rate declined by nearly 22% over the decade. That was lower than Oregon, California, Colorado and New Mexico but higher than every other state, based on revised numbers for 2020.
The report from Gardner uses older 2020 numbers for the decadal change that put Utah at the seventh-highest rate with a lower decline than Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, California, New Mexico and Washington, D.C.
States in the west had the highest rates of decline, the report adds.
That decline has meant Utah lost its top spot — 2016 was the first year Utah didn’t have the highest total fertility rate in the country, Harris said.
In 2018, Utah’s rate dropped below the replacement level of 2.1, she said.
Both stats were a big deal, Harris said.
Total fertility rates rebounded by 1.4% between 2020 and 2021 nationally and by more than 1% in 29 states and Washington, D.C. in that same time frame.
Utah was one of 19 states with a fertility rate that remained virtually unchanged between 2020 and 2021 with a decline of 0.1%.
Harris said that’s partially because of the state’s booming population.
“As Utah grows, it’s becoming a lot more like the rest of the nation,” she said.
Two states — Nevada and New Mexico — saw fertility rates decline by more than 1% in that time frame.
Despite declines, Utah still has the fourth-highest total fertility rate in the nation at 1.92.
Only North Dakota, Nebraska and South Dakota have higher rates.
Economy, culture possible reasons for declining fertility
While the data clearly shows fertility rates are declining, it can’t tell us why, Harris said.
The cost is a “hurdle some people aren’t willing to jump over,” McCormick said.
But economists have recently found cultural shifts in priorities about families and how people choose to spend their time may be causing the drop in fertility, Monson said.
He thinks culture is a large driver because fertility is “predictable until it’s not” and said it matters how people talk to youth about marriage, children and careers.
Those include encouraging young adults to get at least a high school degree, work full time in their 20s and marry before having children — something the report calls the “success sequence.” The ideas also include implementing a per-child allowance and addressing the lack of housing affordability.
Harris agreed policymakers should look at economic issues.
“If people are not able to have kids because of these extra pressures going on … those are the things that we really need to think about to address,” she said.
McCormick added the state and country haven’t “quite figured out how to work with equality.”
Women joined a workforce designed for men, she said, and there’s room for new ideas about how to make the workday reflect people’s actual experiences.
She referenced returnships — opportunities for people who have left the workforce to come back — as one possibility.
The good news, according to Harris: Fertility isn’t declining rapidly, and that means there’s time to plan and prepare.
Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.