Has the Great Recession Wiped Out a Black Generation?

The economy has always played a significant role in the birth rates of African Americans, but the recent downturn could have a much more serious effect on the community.  

Generic image
Generic image Thinkstock

One of the hidden secrets behind the Great Recession is the role different generations have played in the downturn. There are about 78 million baby boomers and about 82 million millennials tweeting away, but Generation X? A paltry 58 million. In other words, the generation now in its prime earning years is too small to keep the economy humming along.

Unfortunately, according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences, those demographic trends are only going to get worse, especially for African Americans.

The National Academy of Sciences study focused on familial and birth decisions during the recession and found that, according to a report at AlterNet, “among women who were in their early 20s in 2008, just as the Great Recession was sweeping through America, about 151,000 will not have a child by age 40. They estimate that the recession may mean that there will be at least half a million fewer children being born over the next 20 years.”

Economic uncertainly has always made people more cautious about starting a family or having more children, but the depth, length and complexity of the Great Recession has had a particularly damaging effect on African-American birthrates.

African-American birth rates have fallen below what is known as “the replacement level.” The replacement number is how many children per woman a community needs in order to replace people who die from natural or unnatural causes. In the United States, that magic number is 2.1. The black community has dropped below that threshold, from 2.5 to 2.0 in the latter years of the recession, the only ethnic group in which this has occurred. (Whites and Asians were already below the threshold.)

Despite the pervasive headlines that suggest black folks drop babies like rabbits, African-American demographic growth has always been more attuned to the economic rhythms (pdf) of the United States than almost any other ethnic group. Way back in 1998, R. Kelly’s hit song reduced family planning to going “Half on a Baby.” It was crude and tacky but reflected an economic environment much more welcoming for African Americans to having children. The technology boom, higher-paying jobs and low unemployment in the ’90s made being able to maintain economic stability and have kids much more likely.

Such socioeconomic-status indicators as homeownership, job security and education explain more about birth rates in the black community than a million lectures on respectability, politics and rap music. Almost half of African-American net worth was lost between 2005 and 2009, and unemployment remains at record levels. Consequently, birth rates are likely to remain stagnant or decline even further until there is a general sense of ease about our economic future.

This economic impact has been particularly pronounced for African-American women of Generation X who were in their prime years for giving birth (late 20s to early 30s) when the recession hit. Black women of all education levels have had a much harder time getting back into the workforce than have black men. (Having a baby is the last thing on your mind if you’re worried about school loans and that underwater house back in Cleveland, and sleeping on your friend’s couch to job-hunt.)

The NAS study’s conclusion that many of these women will not have children by age 40 shouldn’t be automatically seen as bad news for African-American women. It may, however, be the new normal if job uncertainty and economic instability continue for the foreseeable future. And in the long term, such changes could have serious consequences for African Americans.

A shrinking black population puts many of our age-old strategies for success at risk, since black power has always come from maintaining political majorities in cities like Washington, D.C., being a crucial voting bloc, or acquiring federal or private investment after a census. The community will have to develop new strategies for this new, smaller-demographic reality. In the meantime, all of those childless black men and women in their 40s can breathe a sigh of relief. You can ignore the dating magazines and advice shows. It’s not your fault you don’t have children—just blame it on the Great Recession.