Utah’s birth rate dipped to a historic low in 2014, continuing a downward trend that began during the Great Recession, new state data show.
The state’s decline mirrors a national trend, but new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Utah’s decrease is more pronounced since birth rates reached a peak in 2007.
Nationally, the birth rate dipped to 12.5 births per 1,000 people in 2014. That’s a 13 percent decrease from the peak in 2007. In Utah, the birth rate dipped to 17.4 births per 1,000 people in 2014. That’s an 18 percent decrease from the peak in 2007.
Utah still has the highest birth rate in the country, largely driven by a population base rooted in the Mormon culture that encourages larger families.
Pam Perlich, director of demographic research and the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said Wednesday it seems people are waiting longer to get married and have kids because a shortage of good-paying jobs deprive them of the economic security they want before starting families.
“This is tied up in this terrible recession we’ve had,” Perlich said. “People have not formed households. They’ve continued to live with their parents. They’ve put off marriage. They’re putting off child-bearing.”
The nearly 51,200 babies born in Utah in 2014 marked a significant decline from a peak of 55,600 in 2008, data from the Utah Department of Health shows.
The recession exacerbated a longer-term societal trend of people waiting longer to start having kids and choosing to form smaller families, Perlich said. On this front, Utah has lagged behind the rest of the nation, according to data from the U.S. Census analyzed by Perlich’s organization.
Nationally, the average family size decreased to 3.26 people in 2014, down 11 percent from 3.65 in 1960. In Utah, however, the average family size decreased to 3.65 people in 2014, down 9 percent from 3.99 in 1960.
Laurie Baksh, manager of the maternal and infant health programs at the Utah Department of Health, said two other factors are driving the decrease: A dramatic decline in teen pregnancies and increased use of longer-term implantable contraception devices.
In Utah, the birth rate for teens 15 to 17 was cut in half from 2007-2014, Baksh said. The birth rate for those 18 to 19 has also decreased, albeit less dramatically. The national rates for teen pregnancies have also been on the decline, the CDC data shows.
Baksch said there has been a campaign to educate women about the benefits of implantable birth control devices, such as a T-shaped plastic device inserted in the uterus, which help women plan their pregnancies. Baksch says the slow economy has probably led many women to think carefully before having kids.
“A lot of women were probably working harder at not becoming pregnant as opposed to saying, ‘If it happens, it happens,'” Baksh said.
Perlich said she doesn’t know exactly why Utah’s birth rate is declining faster than the national figure but it may have something to do with the October 2012 decision by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reduce the minimum age for female missionaries to 19 from 21.
That led to a historic influx of women serving missions and may be leading them to wait longer to get married and start families, Perlich said. Women serve 18 months on proselyting missions around the world.
Women account for nearly three out of 10 missionaries serving today — double the share they accounted for among missionaries before the change, according to figures provided by church officials. Nearly 4,900 of the 19,500 women serving missions are from Utah.
Perlich said it will require several more years of data to be able to properly analyze the impact.
“It’s a natural experiment. We’re going to watch and see what happens,” said Perlich, adding, “The imprint of that policy change could be being seen in this data.”
More than half of Utah’s nearly 3 million residents are estimated to be active in the Mormon religion.
While young Mormon men have always been expected to serve missions, there’s traditionally been less of an expectation for women, with many choosing to marry and start families before reaching the previously required age of 21.
Even before that rule change, there was of evidence that Mormon couples were following a national trend of having smaller families. Whereas Mormon families two generations ago often had four to six kids, this new generation is often choosing to have two or three, Perlich said.
Perlich expects a rebound in Utah’s birth rate when this latest wave of young adults begin having children as the economy improves.
But, she said the overall decline is a significant, legitimate trend that policymakers in Utah are largely ignoring because they get fixated on the fact that Utah has the highest birth rate in the country.
“We have more kids than other states on average, but it’s come way down,” Perlich said. “People are operating with an obsolete view of fertility rates in Utah.”