Michalski, Stenjem and family

Kelli Michalski, 26, holds her newborn daughter, Sawyer Scott Stenjem, on Jan. 1 at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital in Madison. With them are Sawyer's father, Ryan Stenjem, 26, and the couple's other children Lincoln, 2, and Brooke, 6. Sawyer was the first baby born at St. Mary's in 2017.

Wisconsin’s birth rate declined in the past decade, and the national birth rate hit a record low last year, causing some to worry about workforce and economic instability while others applaud a dramatic drop in births to teens.

“If people are having fewer children, there’s going to be a smaller pool entering the labor force 20 to 25 years down the road,” said David Egan-Robertson, a demographer at UW-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory.

But much of the decrease in the birth rate is driven by a significant drop in births to teens, which most consider a good thing. Many millennials are entering the peak fertility years of their late 20s and early 30s, so they could boost the birth rate soon.

“It’s a positive thing,” said Dr. Deb Ehrenthal, a UW-Madison associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and population health sciences. “Kids do better if they’re born into a more stable setting.”

The state had 66,496 births last year, a rate of 61.3 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 44, according to the state Department of Health Services. That’s down from 72,757 births and a rate of 64.5 in 2007.

Nationally, the rate dipped to 62.0 last year, a record low, with 3.9 million births.

There were 4.1 million fewer babies born from 2008 to 2016 than expected based on previous birth rates, according to Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.

At an average of 1.85 births per woman, Wisconsin and the United States are below the “replacement level” of 2.1 births per woman, the level at which a generation can replace itself, Egan-Robertson said.

That could cause problems in the workforce and the economy in future years, along with challenges to programs such as Social Security, he said. However, immigration offsets slow native population growth in the U.S. more than in places like Japan and parts of Europe, so the concerns aren’t as great here.

“Countries without active immigration ... are facing stagnant population totals,” Egan-Robertson said.

Demographers say the Great Recession, from December 2007 to June 2009, spurred the decline in the state and national birth rates starting in 2008.

Birth rates typically go up after recessions end, but that hasn’t happened this time, Egan-Robertson said. That is likely because of the continuing drop in births to teens and women waiting longer to have children, he said.

There were 2,807 births to females ages 15 to 19 in Wisconsin last year, for a rate of 15.0 per 1,000 females that age. The rate has dropped 53 percent since 2007 and 66 percent since its peak in 1991.

“It’s probably related, at least in part, to better access to effective birth control,” Ehrenthal said.

The birth rate has been going up in Wisconsin among women in their late 20s and 30s. If that continues among millennials — people born between 1982 and 2000; some say up to 2004 — that could boost the birth rate overall.

Older parents generally have more secure lives, which is better for children, Ehrenthal said.

“The kids born will be more successful ultimately, so we could expect to see a more robust workforce for that reason,” she said.


David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.