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A New Era In Utah: What's Behind The State's Record-Low Fertility Rate

A baby's hand grasps the finger of an adult's thumb.
Though at an all-time low, Utah's fertility rate — the average number of children born to each woman during her reproductive years — is still the fourth-highest in the nation; only those of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska are higher.";s:

After a decade-long decline, Utah’s fertility rate is at an all-time low.

For the first time in recorded history of the Beehive State, the average number of children born to each woman during her reproductive years has dipped below 2.1, which is the threshold demographers say is needed for maintaining a population.

That information comes from the National Vital Statistics Reports, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiles each year to measure indicators like birth and death rates across the country. 

“The decline has been very significant and very swift,” said Pam Perlich, a director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute. “I figured it would cross this threshold, but I expected to be about 10 years from now.”

The changes Utah is seeing are consistent with a decline in fertility rates nationwide, which Perlich said is connected to the rising cost of housing and childcare and the legacy of the Great Recession.

It also reflects the tendency of younger generations — in Utah, and across the country — to choose to have children later. 

In 2016, for example, women in their early 30s became the age group with the highest fertility rate, overtaking women in their late 20s, who historically have borne the most children. 

“The data suggest that people want to establish themselves before having children,” said Alison Gemmill, a demographer at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with The New York Times. “They also want to make sure they have adequate resources to raise quality children.”

But a decline in Utah’s fertility rate — which still ranks among the highest in the nation — doesn’t mean the state’s population is shrinking. 

In fact, the opposite is true.

“If you look at the totality of this decade, our population growth rate is the most rapid in the nation,” Perlich said. “But increasingly, we are dependent upon net in-migration into Utah for more and more of that growth.” 

That’s especially true in places like Washington County, where roughly 90% of the recent population growth has come from newcomers rather than newborns. 

Though Utah’s population isn’t showing signs of shrinking anytime soon, Perlich said the drop in fertility rate is still a key inflection point, with far-reaching implications for the future of the state.

“It’s a new era in Utah,” she said. “We really see this as a watershed moment.”

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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