How the United States Grows

Kristine Barseghyan

Kristine Barseghyan, Ph.D. (ABD) Social Sciences

Theoretically, the United States could accommodate 86.7 billion people at density of New York City. Texas alone could accommodate a population of 6.9 billion; together with New Mexico, it could host the world population of 10.9 billion by the end of the 21st century.[i]

Since the Post–World War II Baby Boom, the U.S. population growth rate has been declining. In 2012-2013, it increased only by 0.71 percent after averaging 0.9 percent growth in the last decade.[ii] According to current projections, the net international migration will become the driver of population growth in 2032 (Figure 1).[iii]

Figure1

The most popular reason why Americans are having less children today is the recent economic recession. Childbirth in the U.S. is the costliest in the world, with average total price charged for pregnancy and newborn care ranging between $30,000 and $50,000 and with an average $3,400 out-of-pocket expense.[iv] Together with other expenses for the newborn, job uncertainty and potentially unpaid maternity leave, childbirth is seen as a high-risk undertaking for many women.

Childbirth, largely depending on female fertility, is particularly sensitive to changes affecting women. According to Pew Research Center, the rates dropped to 64.7 from 69.6 births per thousand women in 2007, the year the recession began.[v] The link between financial hardship and low childbirth is more visible in the regional data. North Dakota, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in 2008 (three percent), was one of the two states to show a slight increase in birth rates from 2008 to 2009. [vi]

The decline is evident for the groups of women that were the hardest hit by the recession – young women and Hispanics. Given that Hispanic women are the main bolsters of the U.S. fertility rate, the decrease in their birth rate by six percent has a considerable impact on the general population growth (Figures 2 and 3). The birth rate among unmarried mothers, who are relatively more vulnerable due to younger age, less education and lower income, was 13 percent lower in 2012 than in 2007 and 2008.[vii]

Figure2

Are the causes of low childbirth only economical? The fact that fertility continues to drop, post-recession, suggests that this decline may be linked to longer-term, non-economic factors.[viii] Fertility trends may depend on trends in women’s economic, social as well as family status. For example, women’s higher earnings accounting for almost 23 percent of the recent decline in marriage rates[ix] and may negatively impact their fertility rate.

In the last decades, the rate of women involved in labor force has increased by half, and women’s unemployment has been lower than men’s. A growing reliance on women’s employment and earnings could further dampen U.S. fertility rates in the coming decades. [x] The share of women who outearn their husbands grows, making them primary breadwinners. In such families, decisions regarding childbirth are more likely to hinge on the woman’s earnings than they did in previous decades.

The tendency of young adults, particularly women, to postpone having children and, subsequently, have fewer children is often cited as one of the main causes of the fertility decline. Today, the twenties are generally acknowledged to be spent not in child rearing, but in developing a career and struggling to pay off student debts, while keeping an eye on the future when one might be finally ready to “start a family.” This is visible from the increase in the age of first time mothers. While forty years ago, in 1970, there were almost twice more births per 1,000 women of ages 20-24 than of ages 30-34 (168 and 73 births respectively), in 2009 — for the first time in U.S. history — birth rates among women ages 30-34 exceeded those of women ages 20-24 (Figure 2). In 2012, the birth rate among teens dropped to 29.4 — the lowest level ever recorded in the United States, and the average age of first-time mothers rose to 25.8 years.

Figure3

In addition to the economic recession and changes in women’s social-economic status, local culture also has important impact on female fertility. In 2012, Utah had the highest birth rate among states. Between 2011 and 2012, its population grew by 40,940 people, with almost 89 percent from natural increase and 11 percent from net in-migration. Utah’s fast growth comes largely because of the unique demographic structure favored by the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church or, informally, the Mormon Church) that historically favored large families.[xi]

Figure4

While a growing population is in general a good thing, more attention should be paid to the type of the growth. In 2013, The United Nations published its new world population growth prospects for 2015-2100, where Africa is expected to have the highest positive growth at a rate of 306 percent and the Europe the lowest growth at rate of -14 percent. The difference between the population growth of the least-developed and the most-developed countries is tremendous — 245 and 3.5 percent accordingly. By 2100, Nigeria will replace the United States as the third most populated country in the world. The U. S. will compensate its low natural increase rate by becoming the major net receiver of international migrants in the world.

Today, being a responsible parent means that everything has to be slotted in place – the steady job, the presentable home, the emotional maturity, before having a child. Sometimes expectations many place on becoming a parent are too idealized and complicated. Though based on objective and subjective reasons at the individual level, such an attitude to childbirth may have important societal implications and hinder the natural increase of the American society. This is something we wouldn’t want to have.


[i] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Demographic Components of Future Population Growth”, 2013; Available at:  http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/technical/TP2013-3.pdf

[ii]  Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg, “U.S. population growth slows to just 0.71%”, USA Today, December 31, 2013; Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/30/census-state-population-estimates-growth/4248089/

[iii] United States Census Bureau, “Net International Migration and Natural Increase(Births ‐Deaths): 2012 to 2060”; Available at: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/pdf/NetMigration_NaturalIncrease%5B1%5D.pdf

[iv] Elisabeth Rosenthal, “American Way of Birth, Costliest in the World,” The New York Times, June 30, 2013; Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/health/american-way-of-birth-costliest-in-the-world.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[v] By Gretchen Livingston and D’Vera Cohn, “U.S. Birth Rate Falls to a Record Low; Decline Is Greatest Among Immigrants”, Pew Research Center, November 29, 2012; Available at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/11/29/u-s-birth-rate-falls-to-a-record-low-decline-is-greatest-among-immigrants/

[vi] Ibid.,

[vii] Rachel M. Shattuck and Rose M. Kreider, “Social and Economic Characteristics of Currently Unmarried Women With a Recent Birth: 2011,” United States Census Bureau, Issued May 2013; Available at: http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-21.pdf

[viii] Neil Shah, “Four Years Into Economic Recovery, America’s Fertility Rate Remains Depressed,” The Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2013; Available at:  http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2013/12/31/four-years-into-economic-recovery-americas-fertility-rate-remains-depressed/

[ix] Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan, Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households, October 2013, http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/emir.kamenica/documents/identity.pdf

[x] Link to my blog post “ Gender Inequality Today

[xi] Lee Davidson, “Census: Utah is growing, and fast”, The Salt Lake Tribune,  December 20, 2012: Available at: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/politics/55504996-90/birth-census-grew-growing.html.csp

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About Kristine Barseghyan

Kristine Barseghyan

Kristine Barseghyan, Ph.D. (ABD) Social Sciences

Kristine has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences (ABD), and works as a Democratic Governance and International Development Consultant.

From 2004 to 2012, she worked as program officer for United Nations Development Programme and United States International Agency for International Development. Since 2013, she  is a freelance consultant for international development organizations.

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