Why COVID-19 could cause a decline in U.S. birthrates, and what it means for the 2020s and beyond

Why COVID-19 could cause a decline in U.S. birthrates, and what it means for the 2020s and beyond
[Photo: Jimmy Conover/Unsplash]

Theories about a COVID-19 baby boom have gone bust.


New research from the Brookings Institute finds that not only will the United States lack an explosion of births in the coming months, but fewer children than usual will be born.

And the drop will be significant; expect 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births.

Do the COVID-19 kid math. More than 3.7 million babies were born in the U.S. in 2019, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released last month.

“We live in a world where tens of millions of people have lost their jobs. My guess is tens of millions of people are worried about losing their jobs. Potentially, there are millions of people succumbing to illness. These are not the circumstances conducive to thinking now is the right time to have a child,” says Wellesley College economics professor Phillip Levine, who cowrote the report.

Levine and Melissa Kearney, a Brookings nonresident senior fellow in economic studies, studied fertility data from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the 1918-1919 Spanish flu outbreak. Births dropped about 10% during the former and approximately 12% during the latter, because a battered economy or a public health crisis put people off having more babies.

“Stress and anxiety are huge elements of this,” Levine says. “At the end of the day, economists are people, too, and we realize no one is sitting down at the kitchen table, doing calculations, and saying, ‘Do we want to have a kid or not?’ But whether they really sit down and do calculations or just act as if they do, people aren’t having kids.”

The babies and the bathwater

A COVID-19 baby bust will have ramifications for decades to come, he added. Five years from now, fewer children will be enrolling in school, impacting everything from new construction to teacher staffing levels. Then, universities will have to deal with a decreased number of applicants from 2038’s graduating seniors. Beyond that, there’ll be a drop in new entrants to the labor force, plus concern about the viability of Social Security closer to the start of the 22nd century.

Other factors contributing to the decline in birthrates during the pandemic include the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s recommendation to postpone almost all reproductive care and the many rescheduled weddings. (Thirty-one percent of married U.S. adults said wanting to have children someday is a major reason why they decided to get married, a recent Pew Research Center study found.)

Conventional wisdom says that nine months after a blizzard or a blackout, when presumably there’s little else to do, fertility rates jump. Levine explained that that’s not accurate.

“Even if it were true, during the course of a blizzard, you realize in maybe a week in a bad storm, life is going to resume and go back to normal. I don’t think there’s any expectation right now that life is going back to normal any time soon,” he said. “The abnormalness in which we currently live is extensive.”

“Pump the brakes”

In January, Nicole Hudson and her husband, Petur Gislason, decided to have a second baby, but by June, the plan for a sibling for 2-year-old Sloan was put on hold.

“It’s a tough choice,” says Hudson, CEO of Hudson Collective, a communications firm in Royal Oak, Michigan. “I’m going to be 40 in February. We talked to our doctors and we had a lot of soul-searching discussions with our doctors, and it’s not a decision we take lightly.

“To be ‘full steam ahead’ and then to be ‘whoops, pump the brakes, the world’s falling apart’ was a little crazy,” she adds.

They were worried not only about potential COVID-19 health risks during pregnancy and childcare during a continuous quarantine with a medically challenged toddler and two high-risk grandparents who’d moved in with them, but also finances. Gislason, a finance executive in the automotive industry, got laid off, though Hudson’s business has blown up during the pandemic.

They agreed to revisit the question of baby No. 2 in October.

“I definitely want another baby, but I’m definitely a planner,” Hudson says. “If it’s not safe and if we can’t give our child the life we want, Sloane will be an only kid.”