WASHINGTON — Did America's moms and dads and potential parents see the meltdown coming before the economists?
Just before the earliest stages of the recession, there was a steep decline in the population growth of children less than a year old, newly released census figures show.
Experts have long known that with rising job cuts and home foreclosures, couples often decide the timing isn't right to add children to their household. But the mystery here is that the pregnancy falloff reflected in the government data actually began months before Wall Street's plunge last September.
The number of babies increased only 0.9 percent between July 2007 and July 2008, a sharp drop from the record-setting 2.7 percent growth for the preceding year.
Mississippi saw the biggest decline in the number of babies born during the year, dropping 3.9 percent, followed by Louisiana and Vermont. On the other end of the scale, North Dakota — historically noted for losing rather than gaining population — registered a 3.9 percent increase.
The numbers hint at the tantalizing notion that America's family planners outperformed its financial planners in predicting the rough economic times.
"It's a very good question," said Stephanie Ventura, a demographer for the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's too early to know the reasons for the drop-off, she said, until demographic breakdowns become available later this year. Teen births have been driving recent increases.
Ventura said U.S. couples, who on average have two children, might have instinctively known to slow down amid early signs of economic trouble.
"They might have wanted to hold back," she said.
There didn't seem to be outwardly clear signs of trouble around the corner. During the months when these couples were conceiving babies — or were choosing not to conceive — the stock market was still rising toward its peak above 14,000, unemployment was relatively flat at about 4.5 percent and consumer confidence was reasonably high.
On the other hand, housing prices were near their peak, a pressure on young families. And in hindsight, some banking failures later identified as early signs of the recession were occurring as early as summer 2007, when gasoline costs also began to rise.
The number of births tends to drop during economic downturns. Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show a drop in the birth rate during recessions that began in 2001, 1982 and 1973. During the Great Depression, the rate plunged nearly 26 percent in a single decade.
"The economy does matter," said Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the nonprofit Population Research Bureau. "If prospects look worse for families, they're going to be very likely to have fewer kids."
Decreases in the number of babies were concentrated in the Old South. Of the 13 places that reported fewer babies in 2008, seven — Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Alabama — were in the Old South. Two New England states, Vermont and Maine, had fewer babies. The District of Columbia, Hawaii, Nevada and Maryland also registered decreases.
Just ask Leah Rupp Smith of Jackson, Miss.
Married nearly a year, she and her husband, a seminary student juggling two part-time jobs, would like to have a baby. But as they watch the economy continue to deteriorate, they're less than enthusiastic about becoming parents right now.
"It would just be madness to have a child right now," said Smith, a 24-year-old state worker.
Smith said she and her husband make about $60,000 per year, enough to make their mortgage payment on a one-bedroom condominium, go to the movies once a month and have friends over for dinner. But with a sick economy and day care costs running about $5,000 annually, she said it may be a few years before they buy a larger home and become parents.