The birthrate for the Pacific Northwest overall—and for British Columbia individually—hit record lows in 2002, due to a trend toward delayed childbirth and a scarcity of women of childbearing ages.

That’s according to Population Reprieve: Births and Migration in the Pacific Northwest, a new analysis by Seattle-based research center Sightline Institute. BC is the most striking example of these trends; it has the region’s lowest birthrate, total fertility rate, and a teen birthrate that is one-third that of the Northwest states’. In 2002 low birthrates, along with slowed migration, contributed to the region’s lowest rate of population growth since 1986.

“This is generally welcome news,” says Sightline executive director and lead author Alan Durning. “It gives us a chance to catch up from the rapid population growth of the 1990s and the impact it had on our schools, roads, and environment. Also, many of the causes of the declining birthrates—such as teens having fewer babies—are good for the region.”

“Population Reprieve” analyzes several critical population trends for the Pacific Northwest, a region that includes British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Key findings include:

  • Population growth—slowed but not stopped: In 2002 the Northwest grew by 144,000 people—16 people per hour—the slowest pace of growth since 1986. The region saw its peak growth rate of 37 people per hour in 1992. In 2002 BC had a growth rate of 5 people per hour.
  • Migration vs. natural increase: About 51 percent of the increase—74,000 people—was due to migration, the lowest share in recent years but a relatively high number considering the region’s economic downturn. Natural increase—the excess of births over deaths—accounted for about 49 percent of the increase in 2002, adding 70,000 people to the region.
  • Natural increase and birthrates at record lows—temporarily: Natural increase is at the lowest rate for the region since the 1930s, driven by a decades-long tapering of birthrates. The region’s birthrate has declined to 12.3 births per 1,000 residents in 2002; BC set its own record low birthrate of 9.7—below the Canadian level of 11 and in the range of such stable-population countries such as Japan, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Birthrates in Northwest states may rebound soon as children of the baby boom “echo” reach peak childbearing ages, but probably not in BC, which had a smaller echo boom.
  • Teen birthrates at an all-time low: Births to teenage women have declined to what are probably all-time lows in every state and province of the region. The teen birthrate in British Columbia is the lowest by far, at 12 births per 1,000 teenage women in 2002; Oregon and Washington’s are tied at 36; Idaho’s is at 40.
  • Having babies later: In general, northwestern women are postponing childbearing. Births to 20-somethings are waning across the region and births to women in their 30s and 40s are rising. In BC, births to women in their 30s are likely soon to exceed births to women in their 20s, and births to women in their 40s may soon overtake births to teens.
  • The BC difference: BC also has the lowest total fertility rate in the region. Women now have an average of just 1.4 children each—similar to rates in Europe and Japan—compared to 1.9 children for Washington and Oregon and 2.3 for Idaho. Several factors contribute to BC’s birth trends: Canadian women—for whom prescription contraceptives are somewhat more affordable than for Americans—tend to use contraception with low failure rates; the province has less child poverty—an important driver of elevated fertility—than the Northwest states; and BC’s international immigrants tend to come from places where small families are the norm, such as China. In addition, a tough job market for young adults in BC may have caused some to delay childbearing.
  • Why population matters: Population, along with consumption, is a key indicator of the region’s livability. Northwesterners consume their body weight in resources every day, and much of the environmental harm in the region results from that consumption. But because the region has stabilized many of its per capita impacts, increases in environmental harm caused by the Northwest come largely from population growth. As population increases so do energy use and waste generation, numbers of motor vehicles, and greenhouse gas emissions. Growth also worsens the contamination of drinking water supplies, augments air pollution, and strains already damaged forests and rivers.
  • What to do: Some 38 percent of births in the Northwest states result from unintended pregnancies. If BC had the same child poverty rate and, consequently, teen birthrate as Oregon, its rate of natural increase would be one-third higher. The report recommends that the region increase efforts to reduce child poverty and prevent sexual abuse (proven precursors to teen births); make contraceptive services more available and affordable; and expand access to emergency contraception.

Lead author Durning points out that such efforts will naturally help keep the birthrate low and thus limit the impacts of population growth. “We should focus efforts on curbing natural increase, since migration simply shuffles people—and their impacts—around,” he says.

Population Reprieve says that lower birthrates and slowed population growth bring fiscal challenges, such as supporting an aging population with fewer workers. Serious as these problems are, though, they are better than the alternative: continued rapid population increases. Also, a moderate stream of immigrants will help to fill out the work force in coming decades; BC, for example, still has a relatively high population growth rate—five people per hour—largely because of continued in-migration.

Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) is a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center that monitors progress toward a sustainable economy and way of life in the Pacific Northwest.

July 30, 2003