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Home » Economic Geography, Latin America, Population Geography

Misconceptions About Mexico’s Birth Rate

Submitted by on July 5, 2010 – 5:43 pm 10 Comments |  

In the American immigration debate, the point is often made on talk radio that Mexicans stream into the United States because their birth rate is so high. Mainstream sources sometimes make the same argument. In June, 2010, Britain’s Prince Charles warnedabout the “cultural pressures that keep the global birth rate high,” arguing that the same is true in “Mumbai, Cairo or Mexico City; wherever you look, the world’s population is increasing fast.”

The population of Mexico City is certainly increasing, but not because the country’s birth rate is elevated. Mexico’s total fertility rate (TFR), or the number of children born to an average woman, is actually very close to 2.1—essentially the same as that of the United States. If Mexico’s population continues to expand, it is because its fertility drop is so recent. At its current birth rate, the Mexican population will soon stabilize even without emigration to the United States. As a developing country, Mexico is hardly alone in this situation. Mauritius’s TFR is 1.9, Thailand’s is 1.8, and Trinidad and Tobago’s is 1.6, all well below replacement level.

In Mexico, fertility patterns vary significantly from state to state, as is to be expected. The map that I have constructed above using demographic data from the 2000 census shows a distinct regional pattern, with relatively high fertility rates in the south contrasting sharply with lower rates in both the north and center (including greater Mexico City). The correlation with socio-economic development is marked, as is made clear by comparing this map with that of Mexico’s Human Development Index. But even Mexico’s least developed states have relatively low birth rates by historical and global standards, with only Guerrero exceeding 3.0 in 2000.

Urbanization as well as development correlates with reduced fertility. Consider the state of Mexico, the country’s most populous political subdivision, with more than 14 million inhabitants. This state encompasses many of the poorer parts of Greater Mexico City, and thus has a per capita level of economic output substantially lower the national average ($8,900 for the country of Mexico vs. $6,200 for the state of Mexico, in nominal GDP). Yet the state’s birthrate is well below the national average, having been under the replacement level even in 2000. The state of Mexico also sends a disproportionate number of emigrants to the United States, “making up about 75.7% of the total Mexican population that migrates,”according to the unsupported figures given in the Wikipedia. (Intriguingly, Mexican-Americans have significantly higher birth rates than Mexicans. In 2007, Hispanics in general in the United States had a TFR of 2.9 in 2007, as compared to 2.1 for blacks, 1.9 for Asians, and 1.86 for whites.)

At the global scale as well, Prince Charles’s insinuation that contemporary urban surges in the Third World result from elevated birthrates is misleading. Cities have fed on migration from the countryside since the dawn of urbanization 5,000 years ago; before the 1800s, death rates in urban areas almost always exceeded birth rates. Although modern methods of hygiene now allow cities to sustain themselves, urban fertility rates usually remain substantially lower than rural fertility rates. If global demographic stabilization is the goal, one should champion rather than disparage urbanization. Of course there are other grounds for opposing the further expansion of such megacities as Mumbai, Cairo, or Mexico City, but urban population growth should not blind us to the dramatic downward shift in many developing countries’ overall reproductive rates.

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  • ironrailsironweights

    Ethnic background as well as income may contribute to the TFR differences. As I understand it, the higher-TFR states in southern Mexico tend to be relatively more Indio and less Mestizo than the rest of the country.

  • Anonymous

    I think the point being made on "talk radio" is that Mexicans IN the US have much higher birthrates than legal Americans.

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Ironrailsironweights makes an important point, which I had considered adding to the post. In regard to the point made by Anonymous, I have heard talk radio callers (but not hosts) mention "extremely high birthrates in Mexico."

  • Scott

    Perhaps in southern Mexico due to poverty or neglect by the central government there is less access to birth control options.

  • Eduardo

    No Scott,
    Is just that family planning is almost unexistant among the poor in Mexico, some even consider having a lot of children a sign of virility.
    Don't you think the central goverment would the first one to want to discourage people from having more kids than they can feed?

    • Sam Harris

      what planet are you on? drugs are available over the counter.

  • Anonymous

    Well, fertility rates in Mexico are higher in the south due to the fact that it is less urbanized than north side and much les industrialized. Also communications are poorer. HOwever, even when is a fact that birth rate in Mexico are near to 2.1 I am living in Mexico (at a very center in Aguascalientes, one of the most prosperous) and still I see overpopulation in many places, water as a country is becoming scarce specially in central and north side. Furthermore, employment is very poor, oportunities for young are few, and good education is becoming expensive. Emigration is still high (Mexico send more immigrants than India and is just 2nd after China) So in my opinion, my country needs a period like in Europe where fertility remains below 2 for at least 30 years starting now.

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  • patL

    We all know for certain that health care, education and family planning are essential in keeping women and their children healthy while indirectly lowing birthrates.

    This is also connected to emerging markets and modern government. Market growth leads to more taxes for governments improving access to health care and education for women. There is just too much violence in some places and this is hurting the economy. There needs to be more effort in protecting emerging markets and investors.

    There also needs to be more moderation in governments with increased responsibility and accountability to help all industries prosper. For example, real estate regulations and controls to lower property values for factories or in favour of long term investments, or for social housing may be missing in Mexico and Central America.

  • Jorge Perez

    I totally recommend this article about Mexico, don’t miss it

  • Robert Stewart

    Mexico fertility rate: 2.2 in 2014, above replacement level
    U.S. citizen fertility rate: 1.86 in 2014, below replacement level
    Fertility rate of Mexican immigrants to the U.S.: 2.4
    Population density of Mexico: 148 people per square mile
    Population density of the U.S.: 86 people per square mile