Utah fertility rates still on the decline, mirroring nationwide trends

Jun 22, 2024, 4:06 PM

A new report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute finds Utah's fertility rate is still dropping...

A new report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute finds Utah's fertility rate is still dropping since its fall from No. 1 in 2016. (Stock photo, StudioStella)

(Stock photo, StudioStella)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s fertility rate continues to decline, and it doesn’t look like there will be a turnaround anytime soon.

“For a while, people just thought it was an effect of the Great Recession,” said Emily Harris, who authored the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s latest report on state fertility rates.

“It’s been hard for people to reconcile the idea of declining fertility with … the dominant culture in Utah,” she said.

Utah — which held the title of highest fertility rates in the nation until 2016 — now sits at No. 4, with a fertility rate of 1.853 children per woman. South Dakota, Nebraska and Alaska have the highest rates, though none reach the replacement rate of 2.1.

Why South Dakota? Harris heard anecdotally that there’s a large Mennonite population in the state, which may explain the higher birth rates. Most of the other states that trend higher are also in the Midwest region — whether that’s because of culture or cost is unclear.

Possible explanations for the declining rates

There are lots of potential reasons for declining rates, both in-state and nationwide. No single piece solves the birth rate puzzle, but taken together they can shed a little light on the situation.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between women who want to have fewer or no children versus women who do want to have children but encounter obstacles on the path to parenthood.

“There’s a cultural shift where people are having conversations and thinking about whether or not they want to have kids instead of just assuming they’ll have kids,” Harris said.

If a woman doesn’t want children for personal reasons, there’s little lawmakers can do to change her mind. But if the reasons are financial — rising housing and child care costs, for example — offering women more support could change the numbers.

Fertility rates are declining across the board, but the biggest drops in Utah are among women who are less than 30. Women ages 40-44 are actually seeing an increase in fertility rates.

Interestingly, nationwide fertility rates declined for unmarried women but increased for married women from 2021 to 2022. This could be good news — children who grow up with married parents tend to have better outcomes, researchers and economists have said.

Just because fertility rates among married women are increasing doesn’t mean more babies are being born. More people are postponing marriage, which has been shown to postpone parenthood.

Even though birth rates in Utah have been declining, population numbers have stayed well in the black, mostly because of migration. The state has experienced increasing net migration annually since 2015, according to a 2022 Gardner Institute report.

“Often when places start to experience declining fertility, the way that they can sustain … growth, they start by bringing more people into the state,” Harris said.

Some of these new move-ins are from other states, and some are from other countries. In general, people who are moving in tend to be young, educated and more racially and ethnically diverse than most Utahns, Harris said.

The effects of declining fertility won’t be immediately obvious, Harris said. A culture that de-emphasizes childbearing “bakes into the population over time.”

“In 20 years, it may be more evident if there are certain outcomes associated with that,” she said.

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Utah fertility rates still on the decline, mirroring nationwide trends