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This Feb. 16, 2017 file photo shows newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. U.S. birth rates dropped for the fifth year in a row in 2019, producing the smallest number of babies in 35 years.

Seth Wenig, Associated Press

We’re experts on how not to raise the birth rate. What will turn it around?

SHARE We’re experts on how not to raise the birth rate. What will turn it around?
SHARE We’re experts on how not to raise the birth rate. What will turn it around?

Apparently, even forcing people to stay inside for several weeks isn’t enough to encourage couples to have more children. 

Old wives tales about spikes in births after blizzards or blackouts led some to believe that stay at home orders last March would lead to a much needed baby boom. Now, more than nine months later, the numbers aren’t encouraging. 

Instead of a boom, we had a baby bust. 

Reports indicate that the number of births in several states dropped significantly in December of 2020, compared to the previous year. Experts estimate that 2021 will see close to 300,000 fewer babies than 2020.

Not only are actual births down, but online searches for pregnancy-related topics have also declined.

Low birth rates create a momentum for unsustainable population decline, shrinking labor forces and economies. Advocates promoting fewer births tout dangers of overpopulation and the environmental impact as reasons, but these alarmists are wrong. Recent studies show that increased population actually results in solutions for resources becoming less scarce, as children grow up and contribute innovations.

Once a birth rate drops below a replacement rate, populations can decline rapidly. It becomes increasingly difficult to grow those populations back, especially if a country is no longer economically prosperous.

Getting the birth rate back to pre-pandemic rates — and higher — will be a challenge. Even before the pandemic, affluent countries around the world have been struggling to raise birth rates for years. 

As Lois Collins reported for Deseret News, many of our current social policies are rooted in taking care of the aging population, with little attention given to growing families.

Concerns over a declining demographic and aging population have led nations to lead campaigns encouraging more babies. The measures vary greatly in approach, from the controversial action of banning contraceptives and sterilization, to incentives like cash bonuses for each child and the western trend of implementing “compatible” family and work policies. 

These actions also have varied measures of success, but so far none have worked well enough to raise fertility rates. South Korea was recently met with criticism for its website with “advice” for pregnant women, such as making sure she maintains her appearance and keeping a “small-size” dress in sight as motivation. 

South Korea currently has the lowest birth rate in the world, and this desperate attempt to encourage women to have more babies almost certainly backfired. 

With motivation to have families already low, adding an economic crisis didn’t help. Job loss and financial instability aren’t a good combination for couples contemplating the actual monetary costs of raising a child. 

Add in stress and access to birth control, and you’ve got the equation for how not to raise the birth rate. 

Economic modeling suggests that people “choose” the number of children compatible with their lifestyle based on their level of income. Put another way, more prosperity begets bigger families. If true, we’re in for a tight few years.

One survey found 34% of would-be mothers have opted to delay childbearing because of the pandemic — and though economic reasons are a large part of that, public health also plays a role. Most women don’t want to face pregnancy or childbirth alone while wearing masks and sensing the fear of COVID-19 lingering in the air. 

I experienced a “pandemic pregnancy” myself last year. It was an isolated, often lonely experience that I don’t soon want to repeat or wish upon anybody else. I, too, would want to delay considering more children until the situation is stable. 

Declines in birth were seen after the 1918 flu pandemic and after the recent Great Recession. But COVID-19 isn’t just a health crisis or an economic crisis — it’s both. 

Before last year, falling birth rates were attributed to several factors: Couples choosing to have children later in favor of career or educational goals, easy access to birth control and worries over the economic and lifestyle strain a child would add. 

Still, some companies have implemented new policies that might help in the long run. Amazon and Netflix are paying for backup childcare for parents through Care.com, and in Japan, Microsoft piloted a four-day work week that reportedly brought productivity up 40%. Even Twitter set up a virtual summer camp for employees’ children. 

There’s still no concrete evidence that these tactics will be successful, but different options and solutions must be tested if we’re to avoid an increasingly elderly population and the resulting economic consequences.

I wrote last month about the society’s failure toward families. Those cracks were showing long before a mysterious virus rolled around and will only grow wider without intervention. 

No single long term solution to the problem has been proposed. But in this time of extended uncertainty, it may be the right opportunity to experiment and find a solution.