WASHINGTON -- Five years of steady increases in the number of births in the United States ended abruptly this year, and many demographers and economists are blaming the recession.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported last week 2,361,000 babies had been born in the first seven months of 1991, a decrease from the same period in 1990. Since 1987, births had been increasing by more than 100,000 a year.
The decrease thus far in 1991 puts births 50,000 below the same period in 1990, but that does not include the July figures for four states -- Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and Oregon -- which were not reported. But all of these, with the exception of Illinois, had already shown declines in the first few months of 1991. No 1991 statistics for Illinois are available yet.
The department said that marriages also fell 2 percent in the same seven-month period of 1991.
Although the final figures could change slightly when all states have reported and corrections have been made, economists and demographers generally agreed that the decline in births and marriages is significant and was caused by the 16-month recession.
The last three national recessions were followed by downturns in the total number of births in the years immediately after.
"It's almost certain that the increases of the past years have stopped, primarily because there is a perception that the economy has entered a questionable phase," said Carl Haub, the director of demographic analysis for the Population Research Bureau, a private company in Washington. "The faith of young couples in the job outlook and the economy has been shaken."
Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California who has for two decades been a leading proponent of theories that fertility follows economic cycles -- up in good times, down in bad -- said, "This recession is serious and long and hurting many of the types of people who do the most family planning, who tend to time births and space them."
This year, the clearest regional downturn, 5 percent in the first six months of the year, was in the Pacific states where jobs have rapidly evaporated, particularly in the military-contracting industry.
In the Middle Atlantic region, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the decrease was less than 1 percent in the
first seven months, and the rate of decline was even lower in the Mountain states, stretching from Idaho to Nevada.
But, while the depressing effect of a recession on births is a constant, demographers and economists say they still have no clear picture of how it works -- which income groups or age groups delay childbearing and which children are delayed, first or second babies, or later children.
Economists and demographers are split in predicting whether the current demographic reversal portends a long-term decline in births and in the average number of children born to each woman.