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Economy pushes birth rate down

Multnomah County records steep drop in past three years
by: L.E. Baskow As jobs have disappeared, so have babies in Multnomah County. The birth rate has fallen along with the county’s employment rate.

Here's another indicator of the economic downturn of the past three years: fewer babies.

Statistics from the Multnomah County Health Department show that the birth rate among local women has registered its steepest decline in decades. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a similar decline nationally, with Oregon among the states with the most dramatic drop in birth rates.

Nationally, the birth rate fell 4 percent from 2007 through 2009 and even more precipitously - 9 percent - for women from age 20 to 24. According to the CDC, that represents the lowest birth rate for women in that age group since the center has been keeping such records. Also, Hispanic women are among the groups with the greatest declines.

For those who might question whether the economy is responsible for women here having fewer children, the county health department has compared the local birth rate against the local employment rate and found that since 2006 the two match nearly exactly - as the employment rate has dropped, so has the birth rate (see chart).

What makes that comparison particularly interesting is that employment rates and birth rates don't always match up. In fact, for much of the 1990s the Multnomah County employment rate rose, but the birth rate dropped. The county birth rate began climbing starting in 1997 and continued climbing until 2006. Since then, like the employment rate, it has plummeted.

Aaron Caughey, chairman of the Oregon Health and Science University Department of Obstetrics, says he's convinced the drop in the local birth rate is tied to the economy. But he isn't certain the economy explains the entire drop. Normally, more than half of babies born, Caughey says, are not the result of conscious decision-making.

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TRIBUNE GRAPHIC: PETE VOGEL

Carl Haub, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that studies population trends, says federal data shows the decline continuing through 2010. Haub says that regular, garden variety recessions don't normally influence the birth rate. But the severity of the current downturn, with families worried about jobs and keeping their homes, appears to have deeply affected attitudes.

'I think today pregnancies are more planned than they once were, primarily because the vast majority of women now work and work seriously,' Haub says. 'When you depend on two incomes, it's a much bigger decision.'

Birth rates in Europe and Japan have been dropping as well, Haub says.

James Guadino, epidemiologist with the Multnomah County Health Department, says the employment/birth rate chart clearly shows an association, but agrees with Caughey that it probably doesn't represent the entire explanation for the declining birth rate.

Guadino says the declining birth rate could even be good news if local women are following a national trend showing fewer unintended births during the recession.

OHSU's Caughey says the great unknown, besides how long the recession is going to last, involves the long-term effect of women choosing not to have children during the current hard times.

'The question is, are they going to have fewer children, or are they going to delay having children?' he says.

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Even in womb, girls handle stress better

Fewer children during a recession is one thing, but boys versus girls is another.

According to Aaron Caughey, chairman of the Oregon Health and Science University Department of Obstetrics, one of the more interesting quirks about periods of great stress, such as wars and economic turmoil, is a change in the percentage of girls born as opposed to boys.

That's because in the uterus, females are better at handling stress than males, Caughey says. Increased societal stress can lead to increased personal stress for the mother, which can lead to a rise in miscarriages and premature births - with boys more than girls.

Caughey says he intends to study local birth data to determine whether this effect has been occurring as the local birth rate has dropped over the past three years.

- Peter Korn