Can the Pandemic Destroy US Birth Rates?
Early this year, as vaccine programs rolled out across the country, many began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And with all of us emerging from our homes after months of lockdown, many wondered if that isolated time together, particularly for couples, had bred something more than just a yearning to return to the normal world, something that would perhaps help our world grow a little larger. Would there be a massive baby boom following the pandemic? Early on experts speculated on whether 2020 would be the year to turn around a decade-long slump in US birthrates. With couples hibernating for months on end together, surely a massive wave of babies were on their way. But instead, 2020 had the lowest number of births since 1979, a further mark on the downward trend within the US population growth. Some are citing the uncertainty the pandemic has brought for many couples, both financially, mentally, and physically. But with the Delta variant currently raging across the globe and threatening many nations with a third wave, it is likely we will still be living in a pandemic-tainted world in 2022. This could mean even less children born not just in 2021 but also in 2022. Is the pandemic destroying US birthrates?
In 2007, the year before the Great Recession, the US hit a modern record for the number of babies born that year, just over 4.3 million were born, according to the CDC. But since then, the birth trend has been steadily declining over the years with 2020 now being the lowest number of births since 1979, when the overall US population was 100,000,000 less than it currently is now. According to the CDC, for every 1000 women of childbearing age (15-44), 55.8 of them gave birth in 2020, compared to 69.5 in 2007, a 20% decline. And the number of births fell across all racial and age groups, pointing to a widespread decline that is not isolated to just one faction of the population. The total fertility rate, which is a measure constructed from these data points to estimate the average total number of children a woman will ever have, fell from 2.12 in 2007 to 1.64 in 2020. It is now well below 2.1, the value considered to be “replacement fertility” which is the rate needed for the population to replace itself without immigration.
This “replacement fertility” value is particularly important after a pandemic year. A record 3,376,000 Americans died last year, 18% more than in 2019. And in 25 states, more people died than were born. Deaths outpaced births in every state in New England, most of the Rust Belt states, and even in states that have experienced population increases in recent years like Florida, Arizona, Oregon, and Montana. The widening of the gap amongst how many have died and how many have been born have many researchers worrying about the future work force necessary to support the seniors that will eventually age out.
This kind of downward trend in births is being felt across the globe, not just in the US. Many wealthy first world nations have been experiencing low birthrates for years now. Germany and Japan have some of the lowest birthrates amongst first world nations. In 2019, Japan hit a record low when the birthrate fell by 5.9%, resulting in only 864,000 babies being born. This was the first time since 1899, when the government began tracking this kind of data, that the number had dipped below 900,000. And recently, even less wealthier nations such as Thailand and Brazil are experiencing an alarming downward trend in births. Globally, the fertility rate is expected to fall below replacement levels—2.1 births per woman—by 2070, according to a 2019 report from the UN. And after the world has experienced the ravages of COVID, with many nations having reported catastrophic death tolls, the possibility of a further decline in birthrates can be devastating for the futures of many countries.
While one could point to the pandemic as the reason why 2020 had hit such a low birthrate number, the pandemic was more the final straw on a mountain of obstacles for couples interested in conceiving. A large concern regarding family planning that many couples reported was the extremely high costs of living and uncertain financial futures, regardless of what city or state one lived in. And the data seems to support such worries. According to the Pew Research Center and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the US has the highest rate of income inequality amongst all the G7 nations. In 1989, the richest 5% of families had 114 times as much wealth as families in the next tier below. By 2016, the top 5% held 248 times as much wealth as the median. The richest families are the only ones whose wealth increased in the years after the start of the Great Recession. From 2007-2016, the median net worth of the top 20% increased 13%, to $1.2 million. For the top 5%, it increased by 4%, to a whopping $4.8 million. In contrast, the median net worth of families in the lower tiers of wealth decreased by at least 20%. Families in the second-lowest fifth experienced a 39% loss in wealth, from $32,100 in 2007 to $19,500 in 2016. And the pandemic has only furthered this gap.
In a remark to Congress, President Biden reported that twenty million Americans lost their jobs in the pandemic. At the same time, roughly 650 billionaires in America saw their net worth increase by more than $1 trillion, with them now worth more than $4 trillion. According to Forbes, billionaires saw their wealth rise up 35% over 2020. Thanks to the pandemic, Jeff Bezos became the first person in history to be worth more than $200 billion. The pandemic has only shed brighter light on what had already been a grim picture for the average couple earning a living. It is hard for the average couple to think about bringing in a child when the average cost of living has far outstripped the average salary.
And this kind of loss of earning potential for the working and middle class has put a pause in the other avenues a family can expand in size. In 2007, 133,737 kids were adopted. In 2014, that number was 110,373, and of those 41,023 were adoptions within families. And since then, the numbers have just progressively gotten lower. Adoption, whether international or domestic, is a long and expensive process with an average cost of $40,000-$45,000 and a one to two year processing time. It is unfortunate that adoption rates are on the downward trend because at the moment, the number of children entering foster care is rising. Mothers who find themselves having children when they don’t have the means to support them are having to relinquish custody in the hopes that somebody else with the means can adopt and raise them. But according to recent numbers, too many kids are finding themselves stuck in foster care. A couple wanting children could easily be overwhelmed while calculating potential child care costs and health care costs so to add the time and expense of adoption fees, especially during a pandemic, seems impossible. It is no wonder so many couples are hesitant to start a family, regardless of the means. But while these numbers certainly do paint a bleak picture, some experts are saying not all of this is bad news.
Some social activists have noticed that the downward trend of births have pushed governments to enact more progressive social policies that could potentially help millions of people already with families or planning for families. From creating child tax credits to offering better maternity/paternity leave, some countries are taking the bull by the horns and truly reformatting how they approach birth and child care. They recognize that helping the parent take care of the child benefits the country as a whole. And others are seeing more pushes for programs such as universal basic income. If there is a shortage of workers to come in the future, shouldn’t everyone still be guaranteed some standard of living? Due to the low number of births, many long fought battles for social policies are now being won, to the benefit of many current parents and all future parents.
Another reason for the lowered birthrates can be traced back to the growing independence and education of women over the last fifty years. This can most starkly be seen in the steep drop in teen pregnancies. Teen pregnancy was down 8% in 2020, compared to 2019, and down a total of 63% since 2007. This kind of massive drop certainly does contribute to a lower overall birthrate but it’s also seen as a net positive since this means young women are less likely to be uneducated or reliant on social welfare because of their lack of ability to finish school or earn a living while also caring for children.
And while women have made huge strides in education and professional careers, with many of them choosing to lead more independent lives that either delay or forgo marriage and/or children, this does not necessarily equate to lower future birthrates. According to the Pew Research Center, while birthrates are certainly down, the average age of a woman giving birth to her first child has steadily been going up. And furthermore, the higher the age of a first time mother, the more likely she is to have a number of children. Women having children later in life can drive down the annual fertility rates but data has found that postponing births does not necessarily equate with lower lifetime fertility. There has been an upward trend in women having babies at ages 40-44, with this trend being seen across all educational levels and races but with the biggest rise in women with higher education degrees and women who are white. And these women who are having children later in life tend to have more children than the women of similar age had a decade earlier. In 2016, mothers at the end of their childbearing years had about 2.42 children, compared to 2.31 in 2008. It could be the case that we have yet to calculate the lifetime fertility of the women currently at the prime of their childbearing years. By the time these women are ready to have children, we might yet still see a big upswing in numbers of babies being born.
The pandemic has reached across all divides and has touched nearly all aspects of our lives and no area is more personal and intimate than the idea of having babies. While the pandemic has certainly pushed down on the number of babies being born, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the root cause. COVID has only helped us better see all the other factors weighing in on the decision to create life and in many ways, this kind of clarity has helped us improve as a nation with better social policies and awareness. No one can know what the following twelve months will hold but it is clear that it is only by helping each other can we help ourselves, and our future generations.