Hispanic Pregnancies Fall in U.S. as Women Choose Smaller Families

ORLANDO, Fla. — Hispanic women in the United States, who have generally had the highest fertility rates in the country, are choosing to have fewer children. Both immigrant and native-born Latinas had steeper birthrate declines from 2007 to 2010 than other groups, including non-Hispanic whites, blacks and Asians, a drop some demographers and sociologists attribute to changes in the views of many Hispanic women about motherhood.              
As a result, in 2011, the American birthrate hit a record low, with 63 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, led by the decline in births to immigrant women. The national birthrate is now about half what it was during the baby boom years, when it peaked in 1957 at 122.7 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age.
The decline in birthrates was steepest among Mexican-American women and women who immigrated from Mexico, at 25.7 percent. This has reversed a trend in which immigrant mothers accounted for a rising share of births in the United States, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. In 2010, birthrates among all Hispanics reached their lowest level in 20 years, the center found.
The sudden drop-off, which coincided with the onset of the recession, suggests that attitudes have changed since the days when older generations of Latinos prized large families and more closely followed Roman Catholic teachings, which forbid artificial contraception.
Interviews with young Latinas, as well as reproductive health experts, show that the reasons for deciding to have fewer children are many, involving greater access to information about contraceptives and women’s health, as well as higher education.
When Marucci Guzman decided to marry Tom Beard here seven years ago, the idea of having a large family — a Guzman tradition back in Puerto Rico — was out of the question.
“We thought one, maybe two,” said Ms. Guzman Beard, who gave birth to a daughter, Attalai, four years ago.
Asked whether Attalai might ever get her wish for a little brother or sister, Ms. Guzman Beard, 29, a vice president at a public service organization, said: “I want to go to law school. I’m married. I work. When do I have time?”
The decisions were not made in a vacuum but amid a sputtering economy, which, interviewees said, weighed heavily on their minds.
Latinos suffered larger percentage declines in household wealth than white, black or Asian households from 2005 to 2009, and, according to the Pew report, their rates of poverty and unemployment also grew more sharply after the recession began.
Prolonged recessions do produce dips in the birthrate, but a drop as large as Latinos have experienced is atypical, said William H. Frey, a sociologist and demographer at the Brookings Institution. “It is surprising,” Mr. Frey said. “When you hear about a decrease in the birthrate, you don’t expect Latinos to be at the forefront of the trend.”
D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at the Pew Research Center and an author of the report, said that in past recessions, when overall fertility dipped, “it bounced back over time when the economy got better.”
“If history repeats itself, that will happen again,” she said.
But to Mr. Frey, the decrease has signaled much about the aspirations of young Latinos to become full and permanent members of the upwardly mobile middle class, despite the challenges posed by the struggling economy.
Jersey Garcia, a 37-year-old public health worker in Miami, is in the first generation of her family to live permanently outside of the Dominican Republic, where her maternal and paternal grandmothers had a total of 27 children.
“I have two right now,” Ms. Garcia said. “It’s just a good number that I can handle.”
“Before, I probably would have been pressured to have more,” she added. “I think living in the United States, I don’t have family members close by to help me, and it takes a village to raise a child. So the feeling is, keep what you have right now.”
But that has not been easy. Even with health insurance, Ms. Garcia’s preferred method of long-term birth control, an IUD, has been unaffordable. Birth control pills, too, with a $50 co-payment a month, were too costly for her budget. “I couldn’t afford it,” she said. “So what I’ve been doing is condoms.”
According to research by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the overwhelming majority of Latinas have used contraception at some point in their lives, but they face economic barriers to consistent use. As a consequence, Latinas still experience unintended pregnancy at a rate higher than non-Hispanic whites, according to the institute.
And while the share of births to teenage mothers has dropped over the past two decades for all women, the highest share of births to teenage mothers is among native-born Hispanics.
“There are still a lot of barriers to information and access to contraception that exist,” said Jessica Gonzáles-Rojas, 36, the executive director of the institute, who has one son. “We still need to do a lot of work.”
In Denver, Olga Gonzalez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, teaches a family-planning class in Spanish to Mexican immigrants. She tells her students that as a teenager in the 1980s, she decided to take the long view on life: “I chose to do the college route first and establish my career and then think about babies later.”
Now 40, Ms. Gonzalez has a master’s degree in nonprofit management, two children and a solid foothold in the professional middle class. (Her father, one of six children, never finished the fifth grade back in Guanajuato, Mexico, before he had to go to work.)
Ms. Gonzalez often asks her students, “What is the optimum situation we want so our kids don’t struggle?” The students answer that they want education and smaller families, just like Ms. Gonzalez, who is content to keep the number of her children at two.
Ms. Guzman Beard is an advocate of smaller families, too. She is the youngest woman on staff at Latino Leadership, a nonprofit group that serves the poor in Central Florida. She has refused to involve the group in abstinence-only education initiatives, much to the chagrin of her older, tradition-minded colleagues.
“There needs to be real-life situations in the contraception conversation,” she said. “At the end of the day, we can’t tell families how many children to have, but if you’re already in a position where you don’t have enough money to care for them, that you’re unemployed, that you don’t have stable housing, why would you be adding more children to that mix?”
Ms. Guzman Beard’s mother, Marytza Sanz, founded Latino Leadership 12 years ago and is content to let her daughter make programming decisions, as well as choices about her own family’s size — without grandmotherly interference.
“I think we are changing,” said Ms. Sanz, 54, whose own grandmother had nine children in Puerto Rico, and who faced considerable pressure to produce a large family herself after marrying in Bayamon at age 18. However many children her daughter ends up having, she said, she will support her.
“One, two, three or four, grandma is going to be here,” Ms. Sanz said.

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