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Post-Pandemic Prediction: A Baby Bust

Economic, Social Impacts of COVID-19 to Further Lower American Birth Rate, UMD Expert Says

By Liam Farrell

bassinets in hospital

Photo by iStock

A UMD economist is expecting up to 500,000 fewer babies than normal will be born next year because of the pandemic, but said public policies could be instituted to encourage more births.

The “Is now a good time to have a baby?” conversation has always been rooted in everyday practicalities, but pandemic pressures have pushed its complexity beyond the challenge of properly installing a car seat. 

Employment uncertainty, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 in a hospital and lockdowns limiting support from family and friends for a high-maintenance addition can make an already stressful situation untenable.  

Amid all this, Melissa Kearney, the Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics at UMD, is expecting a big drop in births in the next year—anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 fewer American babies. Kearney spoke to Maryland Today about recent trends in the American birth rate, how the economy can change it and public policies that could encourage people to get pregnant.

Birth rates were already declining
The U.S. birth rate, which measures the number of births per 1,000 women and girls ages 15 to 44, has been in a record-setting slide, hitting a low of 58.2 in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Likewise, the fertility rate of 1.71—the number of children each woman is expected to have over a lifetime—has hovered below the “replacement” match of 2.1 births since 2007.

“That’s not unique to the United States,” Kearney said. “A lot of wealthy nations are worrying about this.”

General hypotheses for the decline revolve around increased employment opportunities for women as well as better access and effectiveness of contraception, she said—so far, decisions based on shifting societal norms versus ones imposed by an outside force like a raging disease.

They shadow the economy
Past research has shown that a location’s birth rate is linked to its economic fortunes, Kearney said. For example, during the early-2000s housing boom, homeowners had more children than normal while renters had less; similarly, in areas where fracking has spurred an income surge, birth rates rose along with bank accounts.

“The same people were living there—there was more income,” Kearney said.

In research published in June, Kearney and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College found that between 2003-18, a 1% increase in a state unemployment rate corresponded with an almost 1% decline in birth rate. So if the final 2020 unemployment rate turns out to have jumped 7 to 10%, as economists expect, that would suggest a decline between 266,000 and 380,000 births alone in 2021.

The pandemic has created additional pressures
While the 1918 flu pandemic and the current COVID-19 crisis have some commonalities, Kearney said one big difference is the earlier outbreak didn’t have an associated recession due to the boost in manufacturing from World War I. Nevertheless, Kearney and Levine found that the earlier pandemic’s three major influenza waves corresponded with double-digit dips in birth rate.

“During a major public health crisis is not a good time to start a family,” she said.

Kearney noted how mass school and business closures have forced many people to juggle work and parenting obligations within the confines of their own homes or apartments—a hothouse environment hardly conducive to a conversation about family planning.

“These ongoing school and daycare closures are exerting tremendous pressure on existing parents,” she said. “That’s unprecedented.”

The government can encourage births in the future
On the individual level, Kearney said, a temporary decline in the birth rate can represent a familial dream deferred or a lost opportunity. But if births don’t bounce back even after the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic crisis end, the resulting population bust would lead to an aging population and a smaller workforce available to support it.

“I don’t expect the dip we see this coming year to be completely offset,” Kearney said. “There is a persistent effect of job loss and income loss … (and) you do start to worry.”

Providing parents with more financial support for child care could help head off a baby bust, Kearney said—babies are obviously expensive, the majority of mothers and fathers work, and current tax credits barely make a dent in the yearly price tag for child care.

“There’s not public provision of high-quality child care. That’s a real weak point,” she said. “This (would be) a good investment in child development.”

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