A Weak U.S. Economy Means Fewer Babies (at Least for Now)

Skye Pearce and Bryan Haas play with their dog, Lucky. The couple says the dog helps fill the void of not having kids.
Rebecca Davis | TODAY
Skye Pearce and Bryan Haas play with their dog, Lucky. The couple says the dog helps fill the void of not having kids.

The four-bedroom Las Vegas home that Skye Pearce and Bryan Haas moved into in 2004 was meant to be the place where they would settle down and raise a family.

But nearly 10 years and countless financial setbacks later, the bedrooms Pearce and Haas envisioned their children sleeping in are used for storage and an office. The kid-friendly ledge that runs along the swimming pool is a favorite spot for their dog, Lucky. And the couple, now in their 40s, say they have never reached that point where they felt financially secure enough to have the children they always wanted.

"When we were talking about having kids and planning on having kids … we were extremely paranoid about the what-ifs," said Haas, 45. "What if I lose my job? What if this happens? What if that happens?"

The deep recession and weak recovery appear to have created that type of uncertainty in a large number of Americans in their prime child-bearing years, according to experts.

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The fertility rate has fallen sharply since the nation went into recession in 2007, hitting the lowest rate ever reported in 2011 and staying there last year. There were 63.2 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control, down from 69.3 births per 1,000 women in that age range in 2007.

It's common for people to have fewer kids when a recession hits, because they worry that they will lose their job or their home, or just not be able to afford another mouth to feed.

"When times are up, births go up," said D'Vera Cohn, a senior writer at Pew Research Center. "When times are bad, births go down."

This economic cycle has been especially weak and has lasted particularly long. Nevertheless, many experts expect that women who put off having kids because of money worries will try to catch up eventually. Still, no one can say with certainty whether those women will have as many children as they might have if the economy had been stronger.

"The net effect in the past has been that you had about the same amount of babies … but they were just born a little later," Cohn said. "That may not happen this time."

For one thing, it's unclear when Americans will start to feel good enough about their long-term prospects to incur the expense of having a child.

The recession has officially been over for four years, and there are plenty of signs the job and housing markets are improving. But Alice Schoonbroodt, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Iowa who has studied fertility and the economy, said many people probably still feel their financial situation is precarious.

"It takes nine months," Schoonbroodt said. "You need to be confident … that in the foreseeable future things are going to be good."

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It's also difficult to separate the financial crisis and recession from longer-term changes in women's attitudes about having children.

Even before the recession, U.S. fertility rates had for decades generally been much lower than they were in the Baby Boom era of the 1950s and 1960s. According to experts, that's because other factors outside the weak economy—such as higher education levels among women—that seem to be spurring many of them to have kids later, and perhaps fewer overall.

"It's going to be fascinating to see," said Jonathan Last, author of the new book "What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demography Disaster."

"Did the recession just exacerbate trends, or did it really put its thumb on the scale and move people into depressing fertility rates?" he said.

There's no objective measure of whether a person has enough money to have children, of course. The Department of Agriculture estimated that as of 2011, a middle-income, two-parent family will spend $234,900 to raise a child to 18—not factoring in college costs. That represented a 23 percent increase from 1960, adjusted for inflation.

Lower-income women may fret having a baby will push them below the poverty line. On the opposite end, some wealthier parents want to ensure that the size of their family won't inhibit their ability to provide everything from fancy strollers to pricey sports camps to elite colleges.

"For many in that group, they parent in a very expensive way," said Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate with the Guttmacher Institute who studies fertility trends.

Haas, in Las Vegas, said he's given a lot of thought to the question of how much money you need to have a child. Recently, he said, a co-worker who is so strapped that he can't afford a car nevertheless had a new baby.

"Am I selfish because I want to have a car?" Haas asked.

One setback after another

Haas and Pearce, who have been married for nearly 15 years, suffered their first major setback in 2001, when Pearce lost her job and Haas was demoted.

They were living in Northern California, and the chance of buying a house in the Bay Area was remote. They decided to move to Las Vegas for its lower cost of living and more affordable housing.

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They chose a brand-new house in a quiet subdivision on the outskirts of town. Pearce said she opted for a design with bedrooms on either side of a bathroom, in case their future kids didn't like sharing a wall. An extra bedroom off the kitchen was meant for Pearce's mother, who was talking about moving from Texas to help with the family.

Pearce landed an administrative job in the commercial division of a bank; Haas remained in California for about a year before he found a full-time position as a manager at a temporary employment company.

He took a second, part-time job with the major shipping company he had worked for in California, often clocking in seven days a week so he could help out his mother, who was having her own financial struggles.

All along, the couple talked seriously about when they would have children, even looking at cribs, buying a few baby items and attending parenting classes.

In 2008, Haas lost his full-time position. He was able to go full-time at his other workplace, but his total pay was reduced to about half of what he had been making at both jobs.

Two years later, Pearce fell and fractured her elbow. She has had three surgeries and, for the past year, has been unable to work because of chronic pain. Meanwhile, the couple suffered another blow when her mother died, leaving them to sort out her affairs, including a house in Texas that needed extensive work.

Haas was recently promoted to assistant manager of a busy branch of the shipping company, but he still makes far less than he once did. These days, he and his wife rarely talk about having kids.

He likens it to how it feels when you're cruising along the freeway in the far left lane and see your exit coming up in the distance. You think you have time to get over, so you keep putting it off.

"Now we've reached the point in life [where it's like], 'Crap, I missed my exit," he said.

At nearly 42, Pearce knows there's a significant risk that she won't be able to have kids at all. But to even try to get pregnant, she said, she would have to feel more confident that she could work again and the couple could make enough money to afford child care.

"I could never really see that in 12 months things will be perfect," she said.

Uncertain future

Fertility rates for women in their early 40s have risen slightly in recent years, bucking the overall trend, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The women in that age bracket are reaching the point where they can no longer physically delay parenthood and decide it's worth the risk, experts say.

Meanwhile, fertility rates for teens and women in their early 20s have seen the sharpest drops.

Some researchers believe that is evidence that many women who have put off having kids will be able to make up for the delays and will still have the number of children they always wanted. But as the economic uncertainty lingers and other factors delaying childbirth come into play, some women may miss the window.

"History teaches us that there will be a bounce back," said Pew's Cohn. "But whether it will be a full recovery, I don't know."

Pearce admits that she sometimes feels jealous of her friends who have kids, and Haas said it can be awkward to talk to people who assume either that they have kids or that they didn't want any.

About a year ago, the couple lost their elderly cat. After what Pearce called the loneliest week of her life, they went to the pound and picked out a puppy they named Lucky. Soon after, they brought home a kitten named Bunny.

"It helps fill the void of having no kids," Pearce said.

Allison Linn is a reporter at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn or send her an e-mail.