Experts say Utahns are having fewer children due to the economy and cultural change

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People are having fewer children for both personal and practical reasons, a three-person panel said Thursday morning.

The economy is contributing to declining birth rates in Utah and across the country, but some people just 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 talk series.

Harris, a senior demographer at Gardner and a mother of two, said she’s seen more people make conscious choices not to have children for a variety of personal reasons. But she also has friends who want more children but cannot afford them.

Two other panelists agreed that it’s a combination of head and heart that leads to these decisions, theorizing that younger couples are now contemplating the cost of having children or deciding they’d rather spend time traveling or doing something else would like to have as children.

Regardless of the reason, Utah’s total fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman between the ages of 15 and 49 — has fallen by double digits since 2010, although 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 father from three.

It’s good that there are fewer teenage pregnancies, he said, but there are worrying long-term implications related to elderly care and maintaining Social Security and health insurance.

The US could look to European countries that have introduced support for parents and families, such as loans and longer paid vacations, Harris said, but it will be a long time before the effects are felt.

Emily Bell McCormick, founder and director of 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 ensure jobs accommodate the “ebb and flow of a natural life”, such as women’s retirement and re-entry from the workforce after having children.

Fertility has fallen nationwide and in Utah almost every year since the Great Recession of 2008, according to a report by Gardner.

An initial dip in fertility, home buying and other important life decisions isn’t uncommon during times of uncertainty, Harris said, but there’s usually a rebound once things start to settle down. That’s not the case with fertility, she said.

Between 2010 and 2020, the country’s total fertility rate fell by 15%.

Total fertility rates in Utah fell nearly 22% over the decade. That was lower than Oregon, California, Colorado and New Mexico, but higher than any other state, based on revised 2020 numbers.

Gardner’s report uses older 2020 figures for decadal change, which gives Utah the seventh-highest rate with a smaller decline than Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, California, New Mexico, and Washington, DC

States in the west saw the highest rates of decline, the report adds.

That decline has caused Utah to lose its top spot — 2016 was the first year that Utah didn’t have the highest total fertility rate in the country, Harris said.

In 2018, Utah’s rate fell below the replacement level of 2.1, she said.

Both stats are a big deal, Harris said.

Total fertility rates increased 1.4% nationally between 2020 and 2021, and more than 1% in 29 states and Washington, DC over the same period.

Utah was one of 19 states with a fertility rate that was nearly flat between 2020 and 2021, with a 0.1% decline.

Harris said that’s partly due to the state’s booming population.

“As Utah grows, it becomes more like the rest of the nation,” she said.

In two states – Nevada and New Mexico – birth rates fell by more than 1% during this period.

Despite declines, Utah still has the fourth-highest total fertility rate in the country at 1.92.

Only North Dakota, Nebraska, and South Dakota have higher rates.

While the data clearly show birth rates are falling, they can’t tell us why, Harris said.

Cost is a “hurdle that some people don’t want to overcome,” McCormick said.

Related: Why advocates are ringing alarm bells about Utah’s child care industry

But economists recently found that cultural shifts in priorities around families and how people spend their time could be behind the decline in fertility, Monson said.

He believes culture is a key driver because fertility is “predictable until it’s not,” and said how people talk to teens about marriage, children and careers matters.

In the Utah Family Miracle, the Sutherland Institute and the Institute for Family Studies suggest ways Utah can remain a leading family state.

That includes encouraging young adults to get at least a high school diploma, work full-time by age 20, and get married before having kids — what the report calls a “success sequence.” Ideas also include introducing a subsidy per child and eliminating the lack of housing affordability.

Harris agreed that policymakers should address economic issues.

“When people can’t have children because of that extra pressure, those are the things that we really need to think about,” she said.

McCormick added the state and country “hadn’t quite figured out how to deal with equality.”

Women are entering a workplace designed for men, she said, and there is room for new ideas about how the workday can reflect people’s actual experiences.

As one possibility, she mentioned return programs – opportunities for people who have retired to return.

The good news, according to Harris, is that fertility isn’t declining rapidly, which means there’s time to plan and prepare.

Megan Banta is the data reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. a philanthropic position. The Tribune retains control of all editorial decisions.

Justin Scaccy

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