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COVID-19 is more likely to lead to a baby bust than a baby boom, economists’ report says

“The COVID-19 crisis is amounting to much more than a temporary stay-at-home order,” the economists say. “It is leading to tremendous economic loss, uncertainty, and insecurity. That is why birth rates will tumble.”

woman in mask
A third of American women of childbearing age say they want to get pregnant later or want fewer children than they did before the pandemic.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to lead to a “large, lasting baby bust” in the United States, primarily because of the economic recession that the pandemic has triggered, according to a new report from economists at the Brookings Institution.

The economists who wrote the report, Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College, predict that between 300,000 and 500,000 fewer babies will be born next year in the U.S.

A second study, released Wednesday by the Guttmacher Institute, lends some credence to that prediction. It reports that a third of American women of childbearing age say they want to get pregnant later or want fewer children than they did before the pandemic.

“The pandemic isn’t just about [COVID-19] and the pandemic just isn’t about the economic challenges and it hasn’t even just been about how do I get my groceries,” said Laura Lindberg, Guttmacher’s principal research scientist and one of that study’s authors, in an interview with Good Morning America reporter Katie Kindelan. “It’s about how do I keep my family safe and achieve their well-being, and for many women that well-being is around the decision whether or not to get pregnant and how do they get to do that.”

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The effect of an economic crisis

Some people have predicted — sometimes seriously, sometimes not — that the pandemic will trigger a baby boom as a result of couples being stuck at home together, sheltering in place. But as Kearney and Levine point out, “such speculation is based on persistent myths about birth spikes occurring nine months after blizzards or major electricity blackouts” — myths that tend to fall apart when looked at closely.

“The COVID-19 crisis is amounting to much more than a temporary stay-at-home order,” they add. “It is leading to tremendous economic loss, uncertainty, and insecurity. That is why birth rates will tumble.”

Their prediction of a baby bust next year is based on previous studies of fertility behavior, including during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

When a community’s unemployment rate goes up, its birth rate tends to go down, the Brookings researchers point out. Research has shown, for example, that when unemployment rises by a single percentage point in metropolitan areas, the birth rates in those areas decrease by 1.4 percent. During the Great Recession, which saw the unemployment rate peak at 10 percent in October 2009, national birth rates plummeted. They fell from 69.1 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in 2007 to 63.0 births per 1,000 women in 2012.

The decrease meant roughly 400,000 fewer babies were born, say Kearney and Levine.

The effect of a health crisis

U.S. birth rates also dropped during the Spanish Flu pandemic — by about 15 percent annually.

That decline “was likely due to the uncertainty and anxiety that a public health crisis can generate, which could affect people’s desire to give birth, and also biologically affect pregnancy and birth outcomes,” write Kearney and Levine.

Something similar could be happening during the current pandemic. “But, unlike what we’re experiencing today, the economy contracted only modestly at the time of the Spanish Flu because the ongoing war effort supported manufacturing,” the economists add. “This suggests COVID-19 could have a bigger impact, since the public health crisis has hit the economy, too. Furthermore, women today have access to much more effective forms of contraception.”

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Unlike COVID-19, the Spanish flu hit young adults the hardest, including young women in their childbearing years. That factor undoubtedly affected the birth rate, too.

A long-lasting effect

The 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births may or may not come to pass, of course. It all depends on what happens next with the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Spanish flu was sweeping across the country, birth rates took a dip with each of the pandemic’s three waves of increased cases. What pattern COVID-19 is going to take remains unknown. Nor is it clear how long the labor market will stay weak.

“The circumstances in which we now find ourselves are likely to be long-lasting and will lead to a permanent loss of income for many people,” Kearney and Levine write. We expect that many of these births will not just be delayed — but will never happen. There will be a COVID-19 baby bust. That will be yet another cost of this terrible episode.”

FMI: You can read the Brookings report on that institution’s website.