Recession Fallout: Fewer Women Having Kids

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If the sidewalks seem less clogged with Bugaboo strollers these days and you can't remember the last time you had to diaper a doll at a baby shower, it's not your imagination or fuzzy memory. Birth rates in the U.S. fell 2% in 2008, the biggest drop in nearly four decades, and that trend is expected to continue. A new study out Sept. 23 from the Guttmacher Institute suggests that the timing is not a coincidence; the recession may be to blame, as women factor economic anxieties into their decision about having children.

Those worries are understandable. All the adorable photos now taking over your friends' Facebook pages can't mask the fact that kids are expensive. TIME's Nancy Gibbs recently estimated that it costs parents an average of $221,000 to raise a child to age 17. That large economic investment is one reason that birth rates have historically fluctuated with the economy — the U.S. experienced significant dips during the Great Depression and in the inflationary years of the 1970s.

Researchers at the Guttmacher Institute, a research nonprofit that focuses on reproductive health, surveyed 947 women between the ages of 18 and 34 who have household incomes under $75,000. More than 4 in 10 said the economy was affecting their decision about having children. The women reported waiting to get pregnant later than they had planned, deciding to have fewer children or opting for medical sterilization to prevent future pregnancies. A majority of the women surveyed (52%) said their financial situation had worsened in the past year, and they were most likely to make their family-planning decisions on the basis of economic concerns.

For these economically vulnerable women, the cost of having a baby would further shake their already precarious financial footing. Three-quarters of them (77%) agreed with the statement "With the economy the way it is, I can't afford to have a baby right now." And while the cost of raising a child may already be prohibitive for many, others fear the consequences of pregnancy in an unstable job market. Close to half of the women who are currently employed said they worried about taking time off from work for medical appointments, which increase in frequency throughout pregnancy.

The existing employer-based health-insurance system exacerbates concerns for women who are considering having a child. If a woman is unsure whether she will have the same job in nine months, she may be hesitant to get pregnant for fear of losing or switching insurance plans. Federal law prevents group plans from defining pregnancy as a pre-existing condition, but individual plans vary and can end up charging women tens of thousands of dollars for a delivery.

But while anxiety about the economy has led some women to become more strict about their birth control use, the recession has forced others to take more risk. Among women who use birth control pills, 18% reported skipping pills, skipping months or waiting to get a prescription filled in order to save money. All of these practices render ineffective the Pill's use as a contraceptive, and yet a quarter of women who are financially worse off than last year reported inconsistent use of birth control. At the same time, national abortion rates continue to fall, and are now at a 30-year low.

One consequence of these makeshift financial strategies, says Sharon Camp, president of the Guttmacher Institute, could be a further widening of the birth rate between wealthier women and the working poor. "Those who can afford better methods with a big upfront cost — like IUDs or vasectomies — may see pregnancy rates continue to fall," says Camp. "But among lower-income women, a third of them are saying that they can't afford the contraception they'd like to use. They're relying on less effective, over-the-counter methods. We could likely see an increase for them in unintended pregnancies."