Birthrate And Mortality

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Every modern, economically developed nation has experienced the demographic transition from high to low levels of fertility and mortality. America is no exception. In the early nineteenth century, the typical American woman had between seven and eight live births in her lifetime and people probably lived fewer than forty years on average. But America was also distinctive. First, its fertility transition began in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century at the latest. Other Western nations began their sustained fertility declines in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, with the exception of France, whose decline also began early. Second, the fertility rate in America commenced its sustained decline long before that of mortality did. This contrasts with the more typical demographic transition in which mortality decline precedes or occurs simultaneously with fertility decline. American mortality did not experience a sustained and irreversible decline until about the 1870s. Third, both these processes were influenced by America's very high level of net in-migration and also by the significant population redistribution to frontier areas and later to cities, towns, and suburbs.

One particular difficulty for American historical demography is lack of data. During the colonial period, there was neither a regular enumeration nor vital registration. Some scholars, however, have conducted family reconstitutions and other demographic reconstructions using genealogies, parish registers, biographical data, and other local records, so we do know something about vital rates and population characteristics. In 1790, of course, the federal government commenced the decennial U.S. census, which has been the principal source for the study of population growth, structure, and redistribution, as well as fertility prior to the twentieth century. But vital registration was left to state and local governments. Massachusetts was the first state to institute continuous recording of births, deaths, and marriages, beginning in 1842 (some individual cities had registered vital events earlier), but the entire nation was not covered until 1933.

For the colonial period, we know more about population size than other matters, since the British colonial authorities did conduct some enumerations. The population of the British mainland colonies increased from several hundred non-Amerindian individuals in the early seventeenth century to about 2.5 million (2 million whites and about half a million blacks) in 1780. Birthrates were high, ranging between over forty and over fifty live births per one thousand people per annum. The high fertility of American women attracted comment from late eighteenth-century observers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Malthus. Mortality rates were probably moderate, with crude death rates ranging from about twenty per one thousand people per annum to over forty. We know a good deal about mortality rates in New England, somewhat less about the Middle Colonies, and least about the South. But apparently mortality was lower from Pennsylvania and New Jersey northward, and higher in the South. Life expectancy at birth ranged from the late twenties to almost forty.

Information on America's demographic transition becomes more plentiful for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The accompanying table provides summary measures of fertility and mortality for the period 1800-1980. They include, for fertility, the crude birthrate, the child-woman ratio (based solely on census data), and the total fertility rate; and, for mortality, life expectancy at birth and the infant mortality rate. The results are given for the white and black populations separately because of their very different social, economic, and demographic experiences.

The table indicates the sustained decline in white birthrates from at least 1800 and of black fertility from at least 1850. Family sizes were large early in the nineteenth century, being approximately seven children per woman at the beginning of the century and between seven and eight for the largely rural slave population at midcentury. The table also reveals that mortality did not begin to decline until about the 1870s or so. Prior to that, death rates fluctuated, being affected by periodic epidemics and changes in the disease environment. There is some evidence of rising death rates during the 1830s and 1840s. The table also shows that American blacks had both higher fertility and higher mortality relative to the white population, although both groups experienced fertility and mortality transitions. For example, both participated in the rise in birthrates after World War II known as the baby boom as well as the subsequent resumption of birthrate declines in the 1960s.

Conventional explanations for the fertility transition have involved the rising cost of children because of urbanization, the growth of incomes and nonagricultural employment, the increased value of education, rising female employment, child labor laws and compulsory education, and declining infant and child mortality. Changing attitudes toward large families and contraception, as well as better contraceptive techniques, have also been cited. Recent literature suggests that women were largely responsible for much of the birthrate decline in the nineteenth century--part of a movement for greater control over their lives. The structural explanations fit the American experience since the late nineteenth century, but they are less appropriate for the fertility decline in rural areas prior to about 1870. The increased scarcity and higher cost of good agricultural land has been proposed as a prime factor, although this is controversial. The standard explanations do not adequately explain the post-World War II baby boom and subsequent baby bust. More complex theories, including the interaction of the size of generations with their income prospects, tastes for children versus material goods, and expectations about family size, have been proposed.

The mortality decline since the late nineteenth century seems to have been the result particularly of improvements in public health and sanitation, especially better water supplies and sewage disposal. The improving diet, clothing, and shelter of the American population over the period since about 1870 also played a role. Specific medical interventions beyond more general environmental public health measures were not statistically important until well into the twentieth century. It is difficult to disentangle the separate effects of these factors. But it is clear that much of the decline was due to rapid reductions in specific infectious and parasitic diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, and gastrointestinal infections, as well as such well-known lethal diseases as cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, and typhoid fever. Nineteenth-century cities were especially unhealthy places, particularly the largest ones. This began to change by about the 1890s, when the largest cities instituted new public works sanitation projects (such as piped water, sewer systems, filtration and chlorination of water) and public health administration. They then experienced rapid improvements in death rates. As for the present, rural-urban mortality differentials have converged and largely disappeared. This, unfortunately, is not true of the differentials between whites and blacks.

Bibliography:

Maris A. Vinovskis, ed., Studies in American Historical Demography (1979); Robert V. Wells, Uncle Sam's Family: Issues in and Perspectives on American Demographic History (1985).

Author:

Michael R. Haines

See also Birth Control; Epidemics; Medicine; Population.

Fertility and Mortality in the United States, 1800-1980

Fertility and Mortality:
Birthratea

Year

White

Blackb

1800

55.0

1810

54.3

1820

52.8

1830

51.4

1840

48.3

1850

43.3

58.6c

1860

41.4

55.0d

1870

38.3

55.4e

1880

35.2

51.9f

1890

31.5

48.1

1900

30.1

44.4

1910

29.2

38.5

1920

26.9

35.0

1930

20.6

27.5

1940

18.6

26.7

1950

23.0

33.3

1960

22.7

32.1

1970

17.4

25.1

1980

14.9

22.1

a. Births per 1000 population per annum. b. Black and other population for 1920 and later. c. Average for 1850-1859. d. Average for 1860-1869. e. Average for 1870-1879. f. Average for 1880-1884.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1988 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987); Ansley J. Coale and Melvin Zelnick, New Estimates of Fertility and Population in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1963); Ansley J. Coale and Norfleet W. Rives, “A Statistical Reconstruction of the Black Population of the United States, 1880-1970: Estimates of True Numbers by Age and Sex, Birth Rates, and Total Fertility,” Population Index 39, no. 1 (Jan. 1973): 3-36; Michael R. Haines, “The Use of Model Life Tables to Estimate Mortality for the United States in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Demography 16, no. 2 (May 1979): 289-312.

Child-Woman Ratioa

Year

White

Black

1800

1342

1810

1358

1820

1295

1830

1145

1840

1085

1850

892

1087

1860

905

1072

1870

814

997

1880

780

1090

1890

685

930

1900

666

845

1910

631

736

1920

604

608

1930

506

554

1940

419

513

1950

580

663

1960

717

895

1970

507

689

1980

a. Children aged 0-4 per 1000 women aged 20-44.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1988 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987); Ansley J. Coale and Melvin Zelnick, New Estimates of Fertility and Population in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1963); Ansley J. Coale and Norfleet W. Rives, “A Statistical Reconstruction of the Black Population of the United States, 1880-1970: Estimates of True Numbers by Age and Sex, Birth Rates, and Total Fertility,” Population Index 39, no. 1 (Jan. 1973): 3-36; Michael R. Haines, “The Use of Model Life Tables to Estimate Mortality for the United States in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Demography 16, no. 2 (May 1979): 289-312.

Total Fertility Ratea

Year

White

Blackb

1800

7.04

1810

6.92

1820

6.73

1830

6.55

1840

6.14

1850

5.42

7.90c

1860

5.21

7.58d

1870

4.55

7.69e

1880

4.24

7.26f

1890

3.87

6.56

1900

3.56

5.61

1910

3.42

4.61

1920

3.17

3.64

1930

2.45

2.98

1940

2.22

2.87

1950

2.98

3.93

1960

3.53

4.52

1970

2.38

3.07

1980

1.75

2.32

a. Total number of births per woman if she experienced the current period age-specific fertility rates throughout her life. b. Black and other population for 1920 and later. c. Average for 1850-1859. d. Average for 1860-1869. e. Average for 1870-1879. f. Average for 1880-1884.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1988 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987); Ansley J. Coale and Melvin Zelnick, New Estimates of Fertility and Population in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1963); Ansley J. Coale and Norfleet W. Rives, “A Statistical Reconstruction of the Black Population of the United States, 1880-1970: Estimates of True Numbers by Age and Sex, Birth Rates, and Total Fertility,” Population Index 39, no. 1 (Jan. 1973): 3-36; Michael R. Haines, “The Use of Model Life Tables to Estimate Mortality for the United States in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Demography 16, no. 2 (May 1979): 289-312.

Expectation of Lifea

Year

White

Blackb

1800

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

38.9

1860

40.9c

1870

44.1

1880

39.6

1890

45.7

1900

49.6

1910

51.9

1920

57.4

47.0

1930

60.8

48.5

1940

65.0

53.9

1950

69.1

60.8

1960

70.7

63.6

1970

71.7

65.2

1980

74.4

68.1

a. Expectation of life at birth. b. Black and other population for 1920 and later. c. For the total population.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1988 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987); Ansley J. Coale and Melvin Zelnick, New Estimates of Fertility and Population in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1963); Ansley J. Coale and Norfleet W. Rives, “A Statistical Reconstruction of the Black Population of the United States, 1880-1970: Estimates of True Numbers by Age and Sex, Birth Rates, and Total Fertility,” Population Index 39, no. 1 (Jan. 1973): 3-36; Michael R. Haines, “The Use of Model Life Tables to Estimate Mortality for the United States in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Demography 16, no. 2 (May 1979): 289-312.

Infant Mortality Ratea

Year

White

Blackb

1800

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

217.4

1860

196.9c

1870

176.0

1880

214.8

1890

150.9

1900

120.1

1910

113.0

1920

82.1

131.7

1930

60.1

99.9

1940

43.2

73.8

1950

26.8

44.5

1960

22.9

43.2

1970

17.8

30.9

1980

11.0

19.1

a. Infant deaths per 1000 live births per annum. b. Black and other population for 1920 and later. c. For the total population.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1988 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987); Ansley J. Coale and Melvin Zelnick, New Estimates of Fertility and Population in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1963); Ansley J. Coale and Norfleet W. Rives, “A Statistical Reconstruction of the Black Population of the United States, 1880-1970: Estimates of True Numbers by Age and Sex, Birth Rates, and Total Fertility,” Population Index 39, no. 1 (Jan. 1973): 3-36; Michael R. Haines, “The Use of Model Life Tables to Estimate Mortality for the United States in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Demography 16, no. 2 (May 1979): 289-312.


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