The 2020 Final Birth Data report for the United States has been released. What I was hoping for was to be able to confirm that the proportion of women of reproductive age (15 to 44 years old) who were married was finally starting to rise again, that the decline of marriage had finally ended. If marriage had increased or stayed the same over a 3 year time span then I felt like that was enough to say that the trend of declining marriage had finally ended. The proportion of women 15 to 44 who were married was 41.5% in 2017 and 41.6% in 2019 (down from 71.1% in 1960). So I was eager to see what the ratio was in 2020; if it was 41.5% or higher; if so that would have meant that marriage had stopped declining in the United States after continuously falling since 1955. Well, no such luck, the ratio fell to 41.2% in 2020.
After looking at other statistics from the report something jumped out at me, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) was at 1.641 for women of all races and 1.552 for non-Hispanic white women; these numbers being close to what you see from European countries, not the United States. The fertility rate in the United States has been comfortably higher than what you see in Western Europe for a long time; but not so anymore it seems. I wasn’t really aware of this, that the fertility rate in the United States had gotten so low.
I had been feeling good that the 3 biggest markers of family breakdown; illegitimacy, divorce, and married women working; had actually been declining since 2010. True, marriage had also been declining since 2010 so that was a counter-acting negative factor but it appeared that marriage may have seen its lowest point in 2017 and that even marriage was stabilizing or increasing now in 2020. If so that would have been an unambiguously positive picture; out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and married women working falling combined with marriage being steady or even increasing would have indicated that family life in the United States was definitely getting better.
In regards to fertility, I basically saw fertility as being a non-factor. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down, but regardless it stays a little bit under replacement which isn’t so bad.
However, looking at the fertility rate for 2020 births opened my eyes, all of a sudden the fertility rate in the United States looked like Europe, so something appeared to be wrong.
The peak of fertility in the United States, the height of the baby boom, was in 1957 when the TFR was 3.767 for women of all races and 3.625 for white women. Fertility then fell continuously until it hit a low in 1976 of a TFR of 1.738 for all women and 1.652 for white women. By 1990 the white TFR recovered to 2.003 and then drifted slowly lower to 1.840 in 2002 and then went up again to 1.908 in 2007. Then from 2007 to 2020 came the large surprise drop in the white TFR from 1.908 to 1.552.
Interestingly, worrisomely, this period of sharp decline in the fertility rate matches closely to the period of supposed improvement in the main social indicators of illegitimacy, divorce, and married women working. The out-of-wedlock birth ratio peaked at 41.0% in 2009 and declined to a minimum of 39.6% in 2018 (for all races). The divorce rate peaked at 52.6% in 2010 and declined to a minimum of 42.4% in 2017. Married women working peaked at 61.4% in 2009 and declined to a minimum of 57.9% in 2016 not counting the recent pandemic affected years. The period of rapid fertility decline started in 2007 and is ongoing, continuing at least until 2020.
Also of importance the period from 2007 to 2020 saw a very sharp shift in women having children at older ages; in 1994 32.5% of white births were to women under 25 years old; this falling to 30.3% of births in 2007 and 18.9% of births in 2020. This is an extremely fast shift to women giving birth at older ages since 2007.
Also, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births to mothers in each age range increased significantly from 2007 to 2020 particularly among older women; for instance the ratio of illegitimate births to white women went from 49.4% to 56.6% from 2007 to 2020 in the 20 to 24 year old age range and went from 10.6% to 16.3% in the 30 to 34 year old age range.
So the period of unprecedented decline in illegitimacy, divorce, and married women working coincided with a sharp decline in the Total Fertility Rate, a sharp shift towards women having children at older ages, continuing increases in the out-of-wedlock birth ratio for women within every age group with particularly fast increases in the out-of-wedlock birth ratio among older women, and continuing decreases in the proportion of women of reproductive age who are married.
If we compare fertility in the year 1976 when it hit a low coming down from the very high fertility of the late 1950s to early 1960s baby boom era to fertility in 2020 the overall TFR is similar; 1.652 for white women in 1976 and 1.552 for white women in 2020; but the age of the mothers giving birth was totally different; in 1976 50.1% of the births to white women were to women under 25 years old compared to only 18.9% of births to white women in 2020. I will also add, 7.7% of births to white women in 1976 were out-of-wedlock compared to 28.4% in 2020.
Immediately after 1976 the fertility rate increased to be relatively close to the replacement level by 1990 and it stayed near to replacement level until 2007; 2007 being when the big decline in fertility got started.
The fertility rate first went below the 1976 level in 2018 so there have been 3 consecutive years of fertility below the previous minimum seen in 1976 (2018, 2019, and 2020).
The big difference between the low fertility seen in 1976 and the current fertility rate that is already even lower than it was in 1976 is that the low fertility of 1976 was a choice, it was the minimum fertility seen in the transition from the abnormally high fertility of the baby boom years to the new lower fertility of the feminist era a bit below replacement level. The 1976 low fertility rate was a choice because the women still had the support of being married, the illegitimacy ratio still being a relatively low by modern standards 7.7% among the white women, and the women still had their children when they were young, under 25 years old for 50.1% of the white births.
Looking at the present time, 2020, the low fertility rate is now something that is being forced upon women, it is a result of women not wanting to give birth in bad circumstances, not yet being prepared to have children so they have to delay having children until later in life, often the woman wants to have a child but she is getting old and hasn’t found a husband yet, this explaining the particularly large increase in out-of-wedlock births among the older women over 30.
In other words the fertility minimum of 1976 was not a reaction against family breakdown problems where women avoided having children because the environment they were in did not support them having children; instead the low fertility of that year was simply part of the transition from the baby boom era to the new feminist era.
Now from the year 2018 onwards the United States is seeing record low fertility in active decline that is indeed a reaction against family breakdown, that is an effort to avoid the problems of family breakdown that women face in their lives, that is a result of women not being able to find or create a supportive environment to have children within.
This therefore is a fertility crisis, a period where fertility will tend to be pushed further and further down as long as the underlying tendency towards family breakdown continues; family breakdown being something that has been ongoing since at least 1870 let us not forget.
At a more fundamental level, I now think that the improvement seen in the big 3 indicators of family breakdown since 2010 (illegitimacy, divorce, and married women working) is a result of the decline in fertility and the shift of women having their children at older ages and the ongoing decline in the proportion of women of reproductive age who are married. The improvement in the big indicators of family breakdown since 2010 is the result of women avoiding problematic family circumstances by avoiding marriage and avoiding having children and delaying having children until an older age when they are more prepared. The improvement in the indicators is unfortunately not the result of an actual improvement in family formation capacity in the population it seems.
I am sorry to report that apparently family life in America is still in decline.
Below are two tables:
The first table shows the distribution of births according to the age group of the mother in the indicated year among whites in the United States. The “TFR” label indicates the Total Fertility Rate among whites in the indicated year.
The second table shows the out-of-wedlock birth ratio or the illegitimacy ratio for white women of the indicated age group in the indicated year in the United States.
|Proportion of Births to each age group among whites – United States|
|TFR||under 20||20-24||25-29||30-34||35-39||over 40|
|Proportion of Births Out-of-Wedlock among whites – United States|
|All||under 20||20-24||25-29||30-34||35-39||over 40|
Out-of-Wedlock Births Plateau and maybe begin Decline
History of Family Breakdown in the United States
Source of Statistics:
Vital Statistics of the United States
Natality Reports from different years
National Vital Statistics Reports
Search terms: births final data
Reports from different years
Marriages and Divorces
Detailed State Tables
Bureau of Labor Statistics – Data Tools
Employment – Labor Force Statistics