National Post

Thursday, July 04, 2002

'Fertility deficit' on the horizon as birth rate falls

Gap with U.S. widens

Dan Rowe
National Post


Among women age 25 to 29, the U.S. fertility rate is 15% higher.

The fertility rate in Canada has slipped to a record low and in 20 years deaths will outnumber births, according to a Statistics Canada report.

Fewer traditional marriages, women establishing themselves in the job market and better contraception are cited as reasons for the declining birth rate.

The report says population growth will increasingly depend on immigration, and health care costs will skyrocket as a larger ageing population needs more care.

The birth rate dropped to 1.52 children per woman in 1999, compared to a rate of 2.08 per woman in the United States.

About 337,200 babies were born in Canada in 1999. Had Canada's fertility rate been the same as that of the United States, the country would have had an estimated 123,000 more births.

Alain Belanger, co-author of StatsCan's Report on the Demographic Situation in Canada, said yesterday there may be some serious consequences resulting from the "fertility deficit."

"The natural increase [in population] will be negative 20 years from now," he said.

"That means we will have more deaths than births. And the population will grow only by immigration and the ageing of the population will be faster here than in the U.S. We will have a larger percentage of our population 65 and older and a smaller proportion of young people and people in the labour force."

This could hinder productivity and result in higher health care costs with fewer people to cover the difference.

"All the problems associated with population ageing will be more acute when compared to the U.S."

A number of indirect factors can be related to the decline in fertility, Mr. Belanger said.

"One of them is that marriage is less prevalent and comes later in life here in Canada. Another is that the population is more traditionalist in the United States."

StatsCan says 34% of American women in their childbearing years go to church every week, compared with 18% of Canadian women of the same age.

The report suggests the growing numbers of Canadians choosing to enter into common-law marriages are less likely to have children than those who have tied the knot in a more traditional way. The high divorce rate is also cited as a factor.

Greater economic uncertainty in Canada may have a very strong bearing on whether people choose to have a child.

"It's difficult to make the decision to have a child when your future is not secure and the unemployment rate, as an indicator of security, has been much higher compared to the U.S.," Mr. Belanger said.

There was almost no difference in key economic indicators between the two countries for many years, but that changed and so have the fertility rates.

"If we look at the trends, we see that in the early 1980s the unemployment rate among young females was similar [to the United States], but in the 1990s the gap has been quite large for those aged 20 and 24. And that's where the fertility rate has declined the most in Canada, while it's remained constant or almost constant in the U.S," Mr. Belanger said.

David Foot, an economics professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of Boom, Bust and Echo, said the declining birth rate may have a lot more to do with education than unemployment.

"Essentially, if you educate women, they have other options, especially in the workplace, and they delay having children," Prof. Foot said.

The U.S. fertility rate has been increasing at the same time the Canadian rate has been falling.

"Most of the difference is due to the teenage fertility, which was already much higher in the States, and the minority fertility rate. The Hispanic and black population in the United States have a much higher fertility rate," Mr. Belanger said.

Sixty per cent of the gap is due to declining fertility among Canadian women aged 20 to 29 and a third due to high fertility levels among American females aged 15 to 19, the report says.

Just over 50 of every 1,000 American girls between the age of 15 and 19 have children. In Canada and the rest of the developed world, that number is closer to 20 per 1,000 girls.

In this case, it is not just black and Hispanic teens making up the difference. The report says 40 of every 1,000 white teenage girls in the United States has a child.

From 1979 to 1999, the fertility of Canadian women aged 20 to 24 decreased nearly 40% and fertility among those aged 25 to 29 declined about 25%. In the United States, fertility rates among women in these age groups remained relatively stable.

American women aged 20 to 24 have a fertility rate 75% higher than that of Canadian women of the same age. Among women aged 25 to 29, the American fertility rate was 15% higher.

The report suggested Canadian women use better contraceptive methods, with more than eight in 10 opting for birth control pills, a method used by fewer than one in six American women.

More Americans also use less reliable techniques such as coitus interruptus, the calendar and condoms. Only 17% of Canadians rely on those methods.

"That's an education thing and an availability thing," Mr. Foot said. The United States has a higher percentage of poorer women who don't have access to better birth control, he said.

Canada's health system allows many unemployed Canadian women access to birth control pills at a fraction of the cost.

"So if anything this is a celebration of Canada's success, not the opposite."

It has been estimated the proportion of unwanted pregnancies in the United States is 60% higher than in Canada, the study notes.

However, Mr. Foot predicted that fewer younger people entering the workforce will lead to more technology and fewer people.

"We've already seen that in Japan," he said. "That can raise productivity ... so it doesn't mean we necessarily have a declining per capita income."

And he cited Italy, Spain, Germany and Japan as having lower fertility rates than Canada.

"So if we are going to wring our hands over our low fertility rate, why do we compare ourselves to the only other developed country in the world that has a higher fertility rate?"

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