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Are births back? COVID-19 baby slump may have ended quicker than forecast

The long-term birth trend is still dragging, with implications for the future

Newborn babies are pictured in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York.
This Feb. 16, 2017, file photo shows newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. Birth rates are slowing in the United States, but there could be good news.
Seth Wenig, Associated Press

Although COVID-19 fueled a “historic baby bust” between late 2020 and early 2021, it appears the government’s “pro-natal policies” of financial aid to families and some family-friendly workplace policies may have sparked a baby “boomlet.”

A just-released analysis by demographer Lyman Stone and sociologist Brad Wilcox for the Institute for Family Studies suggests dire predictions of a long-term crisis-related drop in births similar to what followed the Great Recession have been headed off.

The duo believe the credit may belong to pro-birth policies adopted to ease the economic toll on families, from stimulus checks to enhanced unemployment payments. They say a more robust child tax credit that’s temporarily being delivered monthly will also likely buoy families’ finances — and confidence.

The demographic good news, though, doesn’t alter that births have been trending downward for 15 years (with a small uptick in 2014), raising concerns about dashed family hopes, economic stagnation and a sagging safety net, among other things. And no one knows if help families got recently will reverse that longer trend.

Still, while births are not booming, “they aren’t showing the kind of persistent down that a lot of us thought was going to happen. ... What we’re seeing is that some states are down a little longer, but some states are now basically above where they were in 2019 by month,” said Stone, a research fellow at the institute and adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

In March, data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed slightly more births than in March 2020. Stone then gathered more data from states — 10 had numbers through April and 10 through May. Six states had collected provisional data for June.

He said states bucking early negative expectations by showing more births for months compared to the same month the previous year were Colorado, Connecticut and New Hampshire. By June, it looked like Hawaii, Arizona and Florida would also surpass the previous June.

“I think we’ve all been a bit surprised by how quickly births have come back,” said Wilcox, a senior fellow at the institute and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who said what changed between the Great Recession and the pandemic is the level of government support for families.

Low expectations

Amid the pandemic, there were two sets of predictions. The media talked about a potential baby boom because people were more apt to be at home and have extra time together. Experts instead expected a “durable fertility collapse” because that’s a common pattern in economic hard times.

Historically, births tend to decline after a big mortality spike, which the pandemic included. While birth rates after a crisis typically reset to a more normal level, many experts predicted recovery this time would take a longer. A Brookings Institution report, for example, predicted the United States would see an early decline of 200,000 or more births.

From November 2020 to February 2021, the collapse seemed true. The provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed births in January 2021 dropped 9.3% nationally compared to the previous January, “the largest year-over-year drop in decades,” the report says.

That sharp decline was followed by a “surprisingly fast recovery to sort of pre-COVID levels that we argue is mostly related to the generous income supports that were given to families,” said Stone, who is also chief information officer at Demographic Intelligence.

“By the last month of complete national data in March 2021, births had returned to their March 2020 levels. The sharp birth decline proved transient, unlike the decline in 2008-2009, which lasted for years,” Wilcox and Stone wrote.

It’s impossible to say yet if the new birth data will be generalizable to the whole country, Stone told the Deseret News, but whole-country data in March showed birth rates at “basically a 2019 level, so I think it’s likely to generalize.”

They note the trend shows up elsewhere, including in pregnancy data from the hospital systems of both University of Michigan and University of Virginia.

“Conventional stories about fertility don’t fit well here: Employment was still extremely suppressed in the summer of 2020 and excess death rates were very high. It was not, in conventional terms, a good time to make a baby,” the report says.

The “plausible theory” of what happened is that by summer 2020, people realized the pandemic could have waves, but along with COVID-19 had come some changes that helped families. Unemployment benefits and stimulus funds kept families from sinking, while “in a country where generous maternity leave is rare, pandemic-related benefits and work changes created de facto baby bonuses and paid leave programs for a lot of (former) workers,” according to the report.

“So, despite huge social challenges and a raging pandemic, and despite school and child care closures making the job of parenting much harder,” the researchers said that giving families cash based on the number of family members, especially children, and “nudging employers to provide more flexibility, seem to have helped lead to a rapid ‘normalization’ of fertility.”

They said policymakers could find a valuable lesson: “The baby boomlet we’re now seeing in hospitals across the country suggests pro-natal policy works.”

High cost, lost opportunity

The cost of below-replacement-rate births is large and sometimes overlooked. Stone laments most the fact that women may not have the number of children they’d like to have.

Social costs range from the obvious, like fewer workers to support programs like Social Security or Medicare, to the potential impact on the stock market, which is less obvious, but real, said Stone. People hold assets they trust will increase in value, but that may not be true without new consumers to buy or use what companies sell. Housing equity vanishes if there’s no one to buy houses. Education, entrepreneurship and other signs of a healthy society can all suffer as a result of stagnating fertility rates.

“Having a replacement level fertility is crucial for maintaining economic growth, for maintaining fiscal solvency for the United States. And also for ensuring that as people age, we don’t have a large minority of Americans who are what are called bare branches in China — adults without any kin,” said Wilcox.

Wilcox noted that other surveys, including the American Family Survey by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, have highlighted some benefits families experienced during a pandemic that was “traumatic in some ways, but also a time when they developed kind of renewed appreciation for their spouse, their kids, their family. The story may be that the lockdowns and stresses of 2020 made some people more open again to having kids,” he said.