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360: Baby bust? Colorado has one of lowest fertility rates in the country and is already seeing the impact

Births fell even more during pandemic
Preterm baby
Posted at 7:11 AM, Jun 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-20 10:08:00-04

During the pandemic, babies were still being born and conceived, but not quite as many. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the birth rate in the United States fell 4% in 2020, the sharpest decline in nearly 50 years. Even before the pandemic, Colorado’s fertility rate had been falling. In fact, Colorado has one of the lowest fertility rates in the country, with 53.3 births per 1,000 women.

Denver7 is taking a 360 look at the reasons for the decline, and the impact it’s having on Colorado’s economy, education system and environment.

Baby bust in Colorado? Fertility rate plunged in 2020

Women having children later, or not at all

Christina Huber, an economics professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said most developed countries are facing a decline in fertility rates.

“The largest (factor) I think, is the dramatic increase in labor force participation rates for women, increased levels of education for women, which allows them to choose more high-paying, high-powered careers,” Huber said.

She added that if women delay pregnancies while they’re building careers, they’re less likely to have multiple children.

“If you're not having your first child until you're 35, then you're only going to have one or two, you're not going to have five or six,” Huber said.

At 35, Kristin Angelos just had her first child. Her daughter Leona Rose was born in Denver on May 8.

“I definitely always wanted to be a mom. I have a wonderful mom, a wonderful grandma. We just had a really strong family growing up, so I wanted to do that,” Angelos said.

She and her partner would like to have at least one more, but Angelos said she also intends to continue working, and said her age will likely limit the number of children they have.

In many ways, Angelos is a typical Colorado woman.

Kirk Bol, manager of the vital statistics program with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, pointed out that Colorado’s birth rate among women 35 to 44 has increased in recent years, while births for younger women have fallen.

Birth data 2020 from CDPHE

Angela Fellers LeMire manages the family planning program for CDPHE. She said another factor that may contribute to Colorado’s lower fertility rate is the expansion of access to birth control after the Colorado Family Planning Initiative (CFPI) took effect in 2008. CFPI is credited with reducing teen birth rates. Colorado also has higher levels of education than many other states.

“There is a relationship between higher levels of education and lower birth rates, and Colorado is ranked as one of the most educated states in the country,” Fellers LeMire said, adding that 38% of Coloradans have a bachelor's degree or higher.

Impact of fewer young people, more older people

Most agree that a decline in unwanted pregnancies is a good thing, but the overall lower number of births is impacting many facets of society that will need to be addressed soon.

Denver Public Schools, for example, is facing an enrollment decline that’s already forcing the district to close and consolidate schools. DPS lost 5,000 elementary students between 2014 and 2020. This month, the DPS Board of Education passed a resolution directing the new superintendent to review under-enrolled schools.

BOE Vice President Jennifer Bacon has pushed the board to talk about the problem with small schools.

“We cannot offer everything we need to offer (to small schools) because we are paying the difference in the overhead, and it's pushing our expenses up above our revenues,” Bacon said..

A decline in young people is also raising concerns about supporting Colorado’s growing older population. By 2050, one in five Coloradans will be over 65 years old.

State Sen. Jessie Danielson was the co-sponsor of a bill that would provide incentives to recruit more doctors practicing geriatric medicine. If signed by Gov. Jared Polis, the legislation will offer student loan forgiveness to those physicians.

“Our state is aging more rapidly than the rest of the country, and we have a lot of catching up to do,” Danielson said.

Another question is the impact a change in demographics will have on the environment. While it would seem like fewer people means less impact on our natural resources, Colorado State University professor Edward Barbier said it’s not clear how exactly the environment will be impacted with people living longer, even if fewer babies are born.

“Is an aging population going to be less harmful for the environment or not — we don’t know,” Barbier said.

Barbier’s focus is on economics and natural resources. He pointed out that the world population is still growing at this point, but wealthier countries where birth rates are declining are using a disproportionate share of resources.

“We, as a world, can't afford to sustain that population growth if everybody has the same standard of living,” Barbier said.

A personal choice with widespread impact

Ultimately, having children is a highly personal choice. Colorado couples we spoke to who have chosen not to have kids, largely made the decision because of their own lifestyle preferences, rather than consciously trying to reduce the population.

“There are just so many more options out there — career, travel. You don't even have to get married anymore,” said Christina Holderness.

Holderness organizes a meetup group called Denver Women Without Children.

“It’s just a collection of women that are child-free by choice that want to get together, and just know when they come together that the conversation isn't going to be about kids,” she said.

Women all over the world are making similar choices. On May 31, China’s Communist Party announced it would raise the nation’s birth policy to three children per family. China’s one-child policy, which was in effect from 1979 to 2016, has left China with a major population imbalance and a pending worker shortage. But experts are skeptical that the new policy will change behaviors.

“You can't force people to have more children,” said University of Colorado Chinese history professor William Wei.

Wei said women in China have taken advantage of growing education and career opportunities and have become accustomed to having smaller families.

Similarly in the United States, Huber with MSU Denver said she doesn’t believe larger families will ever be the norm again.

She said the rising cost of children is another factor encouraging parents to devote their resources to just one or two children. She said she thinks leaders will have to consider how the demographic shift will impact everything from the economy to our social values.

“It goes beyond economics to thinking more morally and ethically. What do we, as a society, want?” Huber said.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.