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Op/ed: Five Ways COVID Impacted U.S. Birth Rates—and What Comes Next

UMD Economist, Colleague Find Roller Coaster-like Pattern

By Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine

doctor puts stethoscope on pregnant patient

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an initial decline in U.S. birth rates, and then a jump, and finally, a resumption of their slow decline, according to an op/ed by a UMD economist.

Photo by iStock

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting widespread lockdowns drove speculation about how greater isolation and more time spent at home could affect family life, including the number of births.

In a new essay in Time magazine, the University of Maryland’s Melissa S. Kearney, the Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics, and economics Professor Phillip Levine of Wellesley College outlined five ways coronavirus affected birth rates. “The short answer: At first there was a bust, then there was a boom, and now U.S. birth rates are back on their long-term, downward trend,” they wrote.

In the early months of the pandemic, pregnancies dropped. The onset of the pandemic in the U.S. in March and April of 2020 led to a drop in pregnancies resulting in live births, as compared to what would have been expected otherwise based on pre-existing trends. Two major factors explain the decrease. First, it is a well-established fact that when unemployment rises, births fall nine months later. Some families avoid having a child when economic times are tough.

Between January 2020 and May 2020, the unemployment rate jumped from 3.5 percent to 13.2 percent. Pregnancies fell the most in states where the spike in unemployment was largest. Second, COVID generated widespread health concerns that contributed to the decline. Pregnancies fell the most in those areas that experienced the largest outbreaks. For instance, the largest drop in pregnancies occurred in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic at the outset.

Read the other four ways the pandemic fiddled with birth statistics in Time.



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