U.S. births fell for the fourth year in a row, the government reported Wednesday, with experts calling it more proof that the weak economy has continued to dampen enthusiasm for having children.

But there may be a silver lining: The decline in 2011 was just 1 percent -- not as sharp a fall-off as the 2 to 3 percent drop seen in other recent years.

"It may be that the effect of the recession is slowly coming to an end," said Carl Haub, a senior demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

Most striking in the new report were steep declines in Hispanic birthrates and a new low in teen births. Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by the economy, experts say, and teen birthrates have been falling for 20 years.

Economic influence

Falling births is a relatively new U.S. phenomenon. Births had been on the rise since the late 1990s and hit an all-time high of more than 4.3 million in 2007. But fewer than 4 million births were counted last year -- the lowest number since 1998.

Among the people who study this sort of thing, the flagging economy has been seen as the primary explanation. The theory is that many women or couples who are out of work, underemployed or have other money problems feel they can't afford to start a family or add to it. The economy officially was in a recession from December 2007 until June 2009. But well into 2011, polls show most Americans remained gloomy, citing anemic hiring, a depressed housing market and other factors.

The report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a first glimpse at 2011 birth certificate data from states. More analysis comes later, but officials don't expect the numbers to change much.

Early data for 2012 is not yet available, and it's too soon to guess whether the birth decline will change, said the CDC's Stephanie Ventura, one of the study's authors.

Where Minnesota stands

Minnesota generally followed the national trend -- with 68,411 births in 2011, down slightly from 68,610 the prior year. Birth numbers declined among all minority groups, but increased slightly among non-Hispanic whites in the state.

"We've seen that some of these negative economic trends have halted, but that doesn't mean that families have that sense of economic confidence yet," said Andi Egbert, a senior researcher with the Minnesota State Demographic Center. "A large part of that decision to bring a child into the world is economics."

Minnesota has seen signs of stabilization in 2011 and 2012. Its poverty rate has stabilized, and fewer Minnesotans are exiting the workforce. But birth data ultimately reflects the feelings of women and couples when they conceived nine months earlier. So births in 2011 generally reflect attitudes in 2010. Given that the decline in births in Minnesota has slowed, Egbert said an increase in births from 2011 to 2012 is probable.

The report also noted a fourth decline in a calculation of how many children women have over their lifetimes, based on the birthrates of a given year. A rate of a little more than 2 children per woman means each couple is helping keep the population stable. The U.S. rate last year was slightly below 1.9.

Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.