The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the country into an economic recession and an unprecedented restructuring of our work and social lives. Early on, some likened the public health crisis to a blizzard, imagining that people would stay home, cozy up with their romantic partners and make babies.
These playful visions have given way to a more sobering reality: The pandemic’s serious disruption of people’s lives is likely to cause “missing births” — potentially a lot of them. Add these missing births to the country’s decade-long downward trend in annual births and we can expect consequential changes to our economy and society in the years to come. Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes.
Research we did last year showed that the Covid pandemic would lead to a decline in U.S. births of about 8 percent, as compared with the number of expected births without a pandemic, resulting in 300,000 fewer births this year than would otherwise be expected. This prediction was based largely on the fact that economic factors affect people’s decisions about whether and when to have a baby.
There is a well-documented cycle to the nation’s birthrate: When the labor market is weak, aggregate birthrates decline; when the labor market improves, birthrates improve. At the individual level, there is also a well-documented link between changes in income and births: When income increases, people often expand their families; when people experience job or income loss, they have fewer children.
This effect was evident after the Great Recession. States that experienced higher increases in unemployment experienced larger declines in birthrates; a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate was associated with a subsequent drop in births of 1 percent. Estimates suggest that U.S. unemployment will have risen by around 5.5 percentage points in the year following the start of the pandemic. From the unemployment effect alone, we might therefore expect a 5.5 percent reduction in births on account of the Covid pandemic.
Of course, this pandemic is causing more than “just” a recession. The public health element is also likely to lead some couples to postpone or avoid childbearing. Here, the demographic history of the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic is instructive. That pandemic was not associated with a major recession in the United States, and contraceptive options were much more limited at the time. Yet, every spike in pandemic-related deaths was associated with a large drop in births exactly nine months later. We also incorporated this evidence into our forecast.
School closures, public-gathering limits and social-distancing mandates are also likely to have an effect. Millions of parents are dealing with the stress of combining their work responsibilities with the need to supervise and teach their children who no longer attend school five days a week. This raises the “cost” of rearing children and can be expected to lead to fewer siblings being conceived this year.
Moreover, restrictions on social activities also mean some relationships that would have started in 2020 (and might have led to babies someday) never took root. We have no precedent to estimate changes in birthrates from these disruptions, but they will undoubtedly also contribute to a large reduction in overall births.
Recent data confirms the likelihood of a sizable “baby bust.” Surveys conducted this summer revealed that couples were intentionally putting their pregnancy plans on hold and having sex less often. Google searches for pregnancy-related terms, such as pregnancy tests, were down. Averted conceptions starting with the pandemic’s arrival in March 2020 would show up as missing births starting in December 2020. Official birth data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics will not be available for many more months, but some states have already released provisional birth data. In January 2021, which would be the first month in which all full-term babies born were conceived after the lockdown began, births fell by 7.2 percent in Florida and 10.5 percent in California, after adjusting for secular trends, seasonal variation and the use of provisional birth data.
Some of this decline might be temporary. Couples who postponed having a baby in 2020 may try again in a future year, and some of the “missing” Covid births will happen later. But many are likely never to occur. The longer and more persistent the crisis, and the deeper and more sustained the income losses that result from it, the more likely it is that many of the missing Covid births will be lost forever.
This will have serious implications for individuals, families and society. Some women and couples will have fewer children than they hoped, and some kids will grow up without the younger sibling they would have had otherwise. This could contribute to what some have referred to as America’s loneliness epidemic.
There could also be benefits for the kids in this smaller Covid cohort of babies: As they age and get to school, they will potentially enjoy smaller class sizes and perhaps lessened competition for college slots and jobs.
But the real societal challenge of a Covid baby bust will be a smaller work force, which portends lower economic productivity and fewer workers to contribute to the tax base. It also means a lower ratio of workers to retirees, which stresses Social Security since current workers fund benefits paid to current beneficiaries.
A drop in births for just a year would not be a major problem on its own, but this likely baby bust will come after many years of falling birthrates. U.S. annual births fell to 3.75 million in 2019 from 4.3 million in 2007. Together with the Covid baby bust, these trends suggest that our country could see a multiyear reduction in births that approaches — in reverse — the swell in births that led to the baby boom generation born after World War II.
To increase birthrates, many nations have experimented with explicitly “pronatalist” policies. These often take the form of child allowances or child tax credits, like recent proposals put forward by President Biden and by Senator Mitt Romney. Policies like these probably have other benefits, but their effects on fertility are small.
An alternative approach would be to develop policies that explicitly make raising children more compatible with market work, such as expanded access to affordable high-quality child care or generous paid family leave. But there is no strong evidence that those types of measures would substantially increase birthrates either. Even in Scandinavian countries, with their more generous government programs for families and less gendered division of household roles, birthrates have been falling.
In the absence of effective policies to meaningfully increase births, the most reliable and immediate way to shore up the U.S. population is through immigration, which brings its own political and social challenges. To maintain economic growth without immigration to offset the decline in births, we would need an increase in the share of working-age individuals employed or an increase in the productivity of workers, or both. But both employment rates and productivity have also been falling. Turning things around will require a significant investment of public resources to improve our country’s economic competitiveness.
The declining birthrate has been an issue for years, and the pandemic has pushed it into overdrive. This is likely to have demographic, social and economic implications for many years to come.
Melissa S. Kearney is a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. Phillip B. Levine is a professor of economics at Wellesley College.
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