1800-1990: Changes In White And Black Fertility Rates

This graph shows the dramatic decline in fertility rates since 1800, as demonstrated by data compiled in the American History Files (myhistory.org), an initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This data reflects the decline in the size of families over time.

Fertility rates reflect the size of the American family and in this article, we discuss the changes in family size from 1800-1990 and we compare both white and black families. Along the way, we talk about what these changes mean, why they occur and how they impact senior care today.

The 1800 Family

First, the data for black families does not begin until 1850 and likely because the civil war ranged from 1861-1865 and prior to that war, black families were property.

From 1800-1850 white families had between 6-7 children per marriage. It is also a time in American history when the majority of people live in a rural setting. In fact, from 1800-1850, 6-15 percent of the US population lived rurally. The U.S. then was not the highly industrial nation that it is today. The US in 1800 was more of a developing nation and in such a setting, the “family” becomes an important part of the socioeconomic capabilities of the family.

In 1800, rural living meant homesteads, farms, and a self-sufficient lifestyle where people farmed, raised livestock and gardened as a means of feeding their families and earning an income. Children were also a labor force that helps support the family. It was also the children and their children that took care of the ill and the elderly.

That system, however, was changing. As the nation moved more into the industrial era, family size shrank, children moved away from home and took up other careers. Industrialization opened up other economic opportunities and by 1850, white families were having, on average, only 5 children instead of the 6-7 that they birthed in 1800.

Following the Civil War, black families had a small dip in family size and then a slight increase. This can be explained by the difference in a culture that needed children both for labor and to provide care for the elderly. During the Reconstruction Period men, women, and children worked the fields and sharecropping was a system that needed all of that labor. In 1860, black families ranged between 7-8 children while white families ranged between 4-5 children. These changes reflect the economic division of the nation during that time.

1900 – Family Size in America

In 1900, white families were having 3-4 children and black families were having 5-6 children. The impact of industrialization was in full swing and 40 percent of the US population now lived in an urban setting. A trend that would spike significantly in 1913 when Henry Ford would invent the assembly line and open up the job market as the US began to mass produce the automobile.

The significant departure from self-sustained farming and family life increased as people were able to move more freely around the country. Railroad and Steam Ships were still the most economical way for groups of people to travel a long distance, but the infrastructure of roads and necessities needed by drivers would not be far behind.

These changes also changed the family unit. Without all of those children, who would care for the elderly? In the past, that care was provided by the family. It was a time when the doctor, and often there was only one in a community, would come to your home when you were sick. However, the switch from rural to urban living meant that more people were crowded into smaller spaces and that paved the way for doctor’s offices, hospitals, and other care-related structures.

It would not be until 1965 that Medicare would begin. Before that time, care of the elderly was the responsibility of the family. Churches and other community organizations would help, but the bulk of those duties fell to the family and at a time when the number of children.

By 1930, white families were having 2-3 children and black families were having – on average – three children. This was the time of the Great Depression. Between 1940 and 1950 The baby boomer generation was started. After World War II the boom in the population rose. White families ranged in size. In 1940, white families had two children and in 1960 the white family would grow to 3-4 children. Black families in 1940 were having three children and 1960 they were having 4-5 children. The birthing rates from that period of time are one of the big healthcare issues that we face today – the ongoing challenges of caring for such a large and aging population. After 1960, the birth rate fell. In 1980, white families were having 1-2 children and black families were having 2-3 kids. That is a trend that would remain through 1990.

The Care of the Elderly from 1800-1990

From 1800 until about 1900 the care of elderly family members was taken on by the family and mostly by the older children. As the population shifted from rural to urban, the care of elderly became a problem. There was no Medicare from 1900 until 1965, so elderly people who did not have any money or large families went to the poor houses. These were places where living was rough. At this juncture, all medical care was paid for in cash and if you had no cash, you had no medical care. By the end of the Great Depression, the poorhouses were replaced by a board-and-care type of system and the living standards were slightly improved. In 1965, with the passage of Medicare, nursing homes would spring up, but even they offered substandard living and care – A situation that would begin to change in 1987 with the Nursing Act.

In today’s world, the elderly have options that range from staying at home with nursing care and hospice to living in senior communities, such as assisted living complexes. Even specialized care centers that offer a range of services from independent living to end-of-life care. The number of children born into both white and black families remains low and with those low birth rates, care for the elderly becomes a social issue and responsibility.

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