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Northwest Birth Rate Hits A Record Low

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The birth rate for Washington and the rest of the Pacific Northwest hit a record low last year, according to Northwest Environment Watch.

Among the causes: pregnancy procrastination, the economy and fewer men and women of child-bearing ages.

The group says the population of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia grew to 15.1 million people last year -- an increase of 144,000, or 16 people per hour. That puts the Northwest's population growth rate at its slowest pace since 1986.

The region's fastest pace in recent memory was in 1992, when it grew at 37 people per hour.

"We regard this as good news," said Alan Durning, Northwest Environment Watch's executive director and the study's lead author. "It will take some of the strain (of population growth) off the environment, schools, transit systems."

The biggest reason for the drop: the economy. About 74,000 people moved to the region last year -- fewer than in most years, but still a surprisingly high number considering that Washington and Oregon have two of the nation's highest unemployment rates, the report concluded.

"Apparently, the pull of the region's environment and quality of life is now more powerful than the push of high unemployment," the report said.

Record-low births to teens also played a role as part of a larger trend of women having smaller families and having them later in life.

British Columbia's teen birth rate was 12 per 1,000 teenage females; Washington and Oregon had 36 and Idaho had 40. The U.S. national average is 43.

Increasing birth control availability and acceptance may have a role in the dropping teen rates, Durning said. He said teenage females are increasingly making "better choices about contraception."

"Teens get a lot of support for being smart and responsible (sexually) and taking care of themselves today," said Barbara Morgan, a Seattle social worker and the mother of two college-age women.

Seattle resident Rosie Bancroft, a 21-year-old college student, is childless by choice -- and in no hurry to change that equation.

"I plan to have children if I find the right person, situation and place in my personal life, but I don't see it as the only thing that can fulfill me," she said. "Women are becoming more independent than they were, say, 50 years ago, when they were dependent on their husbands for financial support. They are waiting until they have a more stable career and they're more financially secure before they raise a family. ... The idea of childbearing and of family is changing as society becomes more progressive."

Other reasons for the decline in the birth rate have to do with population age. Bancroft's generation is smaller than the preceding one, meaning there are fewer women in their late 20s, prime child-bearing years, the report's authors said.

As of the 2000 Census, Idaho, Oregon and Washington had 841,679 women in their 40s -- the bulk of the baby boom generation. There were 783,424 women in their 30s, including the tail of that boom.

But the Northwest states had only 697,432 women in their 20s. These women were born during the "baby bust" of the 1970s. That has contributed to record low birth rates.

The region averaged 12.3 births per 1,000 residents in 2002. British Columbia's average was the lowest, at just 9.7 births, while Oregon's was 12.5 and Washington's 13.1, both below the national average of 14. Idaho's was 15.8.

Durning does not expect the trend to be permanent. He said rates are likely to rebound as the next generation of young women, the "baby boom echo," moves into its 20s. But Durning doesn't expect a return to larger families or earlier births.

"There are so many other options for women now ... so by default, we are waiting longer," Bancroft said.

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