Births in Minnesota have fallen to their lowest level since 2002, according to new state figures, as lingering effects of the economic recession and the housing market bust convinced more couples to delay having children.

The number of births dropped 7 percent from 2007, before the start of the last U.S. recession, to 68,407 last year.

In a sign that economic anxiety played a role, the decline was most dramatic among Minnesota mothers with lower levels of education -- often an indicator of financial security. Between 2007 and 2010, births declined 13 percent among women 18 and older with no more than a high school education. Over the same period, births actually increased 4 percent among women in Minnesota with advanced degrees.

"I definitely run into more families where one person has not been able to maintain consistent employment, and they are making decisions" about pregnancy prevention, said John Eads, a certified nurse midwife at Fairview's Riverside clinic. "The financial pressures are making people choose more longer-term contraception methods than short-term contraception."

Childbirth decisions aren't always rational -- there are enough unplanned pregnancies and "oops" babies to dispel that notion, Eads said. But if the economy pushed more women to use long-term contraception, then it could have played a role in the decline of births, he said.

The economy certainly was implicated last week, when a federal report showed a similar decline in births nationally. "I don't think there's any doubt now that it was the recession," said Carl Haub, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C., when the federal numbers were released. "It could not be anything else."

Finances were a top concern for LaTrese Thompson of Minneapolis, who opted in 2006 for an intrauterine device (IUD) as a form of long-term birth control.

Thompson is a medical assistant, and her husband is a security guard. Their incomes pay for their house in Minneapolis, an annual family trip to the Wisconsin Dells and school uniforms and supplies for their daughters, 10 and 6. A third child would stretch the budget substantially, she said.

"I wanted four to six kids because we both came from big families," said Thompson, 30. "We definitely wanted more, but when you get out there and see how hard it is to have more kids and still have the things you want and need, you have to make some hard decisions."

Eads wasn't surprised that the number of pregnancies remained constant for women with advanced degrees. The recession might have affected them as well, but advancing age means they don't always have the option of waiting. Many put off having children to earn their degrees and have only a small window of time in their late 30s and early 40s when childbirth is still safe, he said.

That consideration could emerge one day for Brennan Coatney, 28, and his wife, Shoua, 26, who has a master's degree in social work. Their plans for children have been put on hold as they contemplate upcoming career changes. Watching close friends struggle financially while raising children has been eye-opening as well. "They're the same age as us," Brennan Coatney said. "They both work full time and set aside a lot of things they'd like to do in order to put food on the table nowadays."

At the same time, he said he and his wife realize they can't wait forever if they want to have kids. By adult age group, the biggest drop in births involved mothers ages 20 to 24. Family planning advocates wondered whether years of heightened public education on pregnancy prevention had a lasting impression on these young adults.

As for Minnesota teens, the number of births declined 29 percent from 2007 to 2010. Births to teen mothers dropped 10 percent from 2009 to 2010, the largest one-year drop in recent history. Most teen births are unplanned, so the drop is probably not due to economic concerns, said Katherine Meerse, a board member for Teenwise Minnesota. On the other hand, new grant-funded programs in the Twin Cities do encourage teens to think about their future and how unplanned pregnancies might get in the way, she said.

Abortion can be ruled out as a reason for the drop in births, though. The 11,505 abortions in Minnesota last year was the lowest total since 1975.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744