Va. birth rates have declined, but regional differences tell a more complicated story

By: - July 15, 2021 12:02 am

(Getty Images)

In mid-April, Virginia hospitals noted what was then a surprising trend: birth-related visits had declined by about 3.3 percent over the past year, despite early speculation that pandemic stay-at-home orders could lead to a baby boom.

At the time, analysts with the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association weren’t sure if the trend would bear out statewide (one theory was that the decrease in hospital births may have been offset by a rise in at-home deliveries as midwives reported growing interest in their services). But less than a month later, a federal report found that the number of babies born across the U.S. declined by nearly 4 percent from 2019 to 2020 — a new record low. Virginia, it turns out, saw a similar 3 percent drop in births statewide, the largest single-year slump in more than a decade.

The trend, both nationally and statewide, has led to plenty of conjecture on how declining birth numbers could affect everything from the future labor force to government budgets to economic growth. “How Low Can America’s Birth Rate Go Before It’s A Problem?” mused one headline from the data analysis site FiveThirtyEight. The decline in Virginia could have “dramatic consequences for decades to come,” proclaimed another article from public radio station WVTF. 

At least right now, though, it’s not clear that a lower birth rate is necessarily a bad thing, said Kristin Perkins, a sociology professor at Georgetown University. And digging into Virginia’s data shows that the declines haven’t been uniform across the state. Parsing out the reasons for demographic change can be complicated, but some local and regional trends might offer clues to why some Virginians are starting families — and where. 

“No one has a clear answer, but I think part of it can be traced to a change in priorities,” said Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia. “And it is unbelievably complicated, but I think there is something to be learned from looking at certain regions of the state.”

What the data shows

To track how births have shifted, the Mercury requested the number of live births for each locality over the last five years. Staff members at the Virginia Department of Health are still adding out-of-state births to the counts for 2020, making statistics from that year too preliminary to include, said Peter Hunt, an analyst for the agency’s Vital Event Statistics Program. But calculating the change in births from 2015 to 2019 still offers a sense of which areas have seen the biggest changes over time.

“One thing that jumps out is that births in general have been decreasing,” Hunt said. Of the state’s 133 localities, well over half — 91 in total — have seen a drop in birth counts. Those include the city of Richmond at the low end, with a decrease of 0.5 percent, and Emporia at the high end with a 35 percent slump over a five-year period (the city went from 103 births in 2015 to 67 in 2019). 

Despite the significant decline in some localities, Virginia’s overall number of births only went down by 5.5 percent over the same time period. That’s due to what — in some localities — were equally large increases. Galax, in Southwest Virginia, saw births rise by 36 percent over five years. The city was closely followed by Goochland County and Northumberland County, which recorded increases of 29.3 percent and 27.2 percent, respectively.

Births declined more in some regions than others

While noting the difference between localities can be interesting, Lombard said it’s nearly impossible to draw conclusions from such granular data. The city of Manassas, for instance, saw a 8.8 percent decline in births from 2015 to 2019, dropping from 772 to 704. At the same time, adjoining Manassas Park went from 273 to 299 births, an increase of 9.5 percent. And while Galax saw the state’s biggest jump over the past five years, births in Bristol dropped by nearly 26 percent, going from 205 to 152.  

“On a county-by-county level, it’s very hard to say anything specific,” Lombard said. But at the metropolitan level, researchers have noted some distinct trends — including a major falloff in Northern Virginia as a whole.

“As out-migration has accelerated, births have declined more in Northern Virginia than any other metro area except Blacksburg,” he added in a follow-up email. Data suggests the slump began relatively recently. Northern Virginia recorded more births in 2014 than it did in 2007, a year when the birth rate peaked across the country. That boost meant that Virginia’s birth rate declined more slowly than the national average — a trend that began to shift in 2016.

Overall, births in Northern Virginia dropped by 8 percent from 2014 to 2019, according to data from the Weldon Cooper Center. The region wasn’t alone — nearly every major metropolitan area in Virginia, with the exception of Lynchburg, recorded a drop over the same time period.

But the magnitude of that decline differs substantially by region, offering more insight into where, and why, some Virginians are choosing to have children. Some of it might come down to local culture, Lombard said. While births in the Blacksburg area declined by nearly 12 percent — more than anywhere else in the state — other regions with large universities bucked that trend. 

In Lynchburg, for example, births actually increased by 0.6 percent, a trend that could trace back to Liberty University and the region’s evangelical presence, Lombard said. And despite births dropping by about 12 percent in Harrisonburg from 2015 to 2019, according to state data, the larger region only saw a slight decline — likely due to the strong Mennonite presence in surrounding counties. 

“They’re culturally different, they’re more affordable, and so you see different fertility patterns,” Lombard said. “If you think about Virginia overall having a 13 percent decline since 2008, anything less than that is fairly remarkable.”

The importance of affordability — and a strong economy

Meanwhile, comparing Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads — some of the state’s largest metropolitan areas — offers a better sense of how regional economic conditions can shape birth rates. Northern Virginia, especially, has long been an economic driver for the state, accounting for more than half of the population growth around Washington, D.C. since 1980. But home prices have also spiked, making the area less attractive for young families. 

Construction work in Alexandria, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

“Most people hold off on having children until they’re married and more established, maybe until they can buy a home,” Lombard said. “But in Northern Virginia, that’s very difficult for a lot of families.” The steep decline of births in the region also correlates with a broader trend — women waiting to have children until they’re older and farther along in their careers.

“If women see there’s a lot of employment and economic opportunity, they may delay child-bearing because they don’t want to lose the opportunity to be in the labor force,” Perkins said. So while areas like Northern Virginia are still attracting recent college graduates and young adults at the start of their careers, data suggests they’re less effective at keeping families. 

Lombard said that’s borne out by the rise of the exurb — cheaper, often more rural areas that are close enough to existing cities and suburbs. Loudoun County is one obvious example, with a population that’s grown 30 percent over the last decade. But over the last five years, births have increased in adjoining counties including Clarke and Warren, a sign those areas could be attracting more young families.

Richmond, on the other hand, has largely escaped the same decline. Regionally, births shrunk by roughly 1 percent from 2014 to 2019, but some counties actually saw an increase in the number of babies born. 

“Chesterfield has been a big outlier, and that makes sense — it’s a suburban area that’s growing and attracting a lot of families,” Lombard said. 

The strong local economy, coupled with relative affordability, distinguishes Richmond from both Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which saw births drop by nearly 6 percent over the same time period. The latter region has also struggled to create new jobs, relying heavily on tourism and the military.

“That can be an even bigger factor,” Perkins said. “Demographers are finding that where there’s not much economic opportunity, people delay or don’t have as many children. And that’s because there’s a lot of uncertainty about how they’ll afford it.”

An aerial view of Norfolk Naval Station, the largest naval base in the world. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher B. Stoltz/Released)

Crafting policy

Whether U.S. policymakers should worry about fewer babies is still an open question. Perkins pointed out that America’s birth rate is still substantially higher than it is in countries including Japan, Spain and especially Italy, where plummeting births could exacerbate huge public debt and a growing pension load. There have also been positive outcomes, including a significant drop in teen births. 

“I’m not sure if people are always aware that’s where we started seeing the steepest declines,” Lombard said. And while it’s unlikely rates will see a complete rebound, birth numbers could creep up among people who delayed pregnancy, making the drop less severe than anticipated.

In the meantime, leaders all over the world are experimenting with incentives for childbirth. In 2015, Poland began offering families monthly allowances for every child past the first. Sweden offers more than a year of paid parental leave, and families across the U.S. are set to receive expanded child tax credits as part of the most recent federal stimulus package. 

It’s still unclear, though, if those financial lures are enough to reverse years of decline. Other policies are equally experimental. Lombard said it’s possible that more affordable housing could promote childbirth, but many of those initiatives tend to focus on apartments and other multifamily dwellings. At the same time, data shows that births have plummeted most dramatically among renters, while remaining flat — or even slightly higher — for homeowners.

“There’s an idea that I think is very strong in Western society, and it’s that owning a home is kind of a preliminary part of having a family,” he said. At the same time, tastes have also shifted toward larger houses, which are more expensive to produce and to buy.

Making single-family homes more affordable might encourage more people to have children, as could more permanent work-from-home policies, according to Lombard. But he’s also skeptical that leaders should — or need — to intervene.

“I think almost anyone would say, speaking very generally, that the decline in births comes down to people reorienting their values,” he said. “And I don’t know if it’s the government’s job to get people to prioritize things differently.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.