The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on American society. Beyond the sheer loss of life and livelihood, the Social Capital Project highlighted concerning trends such as rising depression and anxiety and increased reports of domestic violence. COVID-19 deaths, while significant, may tell only part of the story when it comes to lives lost: opioid deaths, for example, spiked again in 2020, after dropping from 2017 to 2018. Indeed, we might not know the full toll of the pandemic for some time yet.
In addition to the many negative impacts of the pandemic, some commenters initially predicted that one positive effect of everyone spending more time at home might be a “COVID baby boom,” or surge in births. But fertility researchers quickly poured cold water on this theory and suggested that a “baby bust,” or decline in births, was more likely.
In an early March 2020 post for the Institute for Family Studies, Lyman Stone presented data from major disasters going back to the 1800s, finding that “events that cause a large increase in deaths tend to cause a large decrease in births nine months later [emphasis in original].” Because COVID-19 deaths occur primarily in elderly populations, however, one might assume that there would be no significant disruption in birth rates among people in their prime childbearing years. Stone addresses this point:
[T]he most important factor is simply the scale of a disaster: disasters impacting more people have larger effects on both mortality and fertility. While deaths attract a great deal of attention, the number of impacted people who don’t die might be even more important. A disease that disrupts economic activity and marital behaviors, and which infects or scares a very large number of people, may have a very large effect indeed…
In other words, the fear and economic uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 outbreak might per se affect birth rates. In December 2020, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine estimated that there could be more than 200,000 fewer births in 2021 resulting from the increase in unemployment alone; they note that the overall drop in births may very well be larger after accounting for other factors. Public opinion research also suggests that women changed their family plans early on, perhaps in response to the uncertainty: one survey conducted in early May 2020 found that a third of U.S. women wanted to delay childbearing or have fewer children due to the pandemic.
Additional factors related to the pandemic fallout may have contributed to the decline in births. While some U.S. women changed their family plans, other women undergoing fertility treatment experienced treatment delays because of pandemic-related policies around elective procedures.1
Incoming data should indicate whether theory and predictions comport with reality. In the United States, most COVID-19 shutdowns began in the second week of March 2020; assuming a 40-week pregnancy and an immediate impact of the shutdowns on fertility decisions, we might expect to see birth rates beginning to decline in mid-December 2020. To the extent that people believed the COVID-related disruptions would be short-lived, however, they may not have adjusted their plans to have a child until April or May, when it became clearer that disruptions to life would continue longer-term. This would push the expected birth rate effect into January or February.
International data on births in December 2020 and January 2021 seem to provide early indications of a “baby bust.” In France, for example, the number of births in January 2021 was 13.5 percent lower than in January 2020.
In the United States, some state departments of health have reported provisional data on births for December, January, February, and even March.2 Figure 1 shows the monthly year-over-year (YoY) trend in births—the percentage change in births compared to the same month in the previous year—for selected states which have reported their monthly birth data.
Figure 1. Percent Change in Year-Over-Year Births by State, Jan. 2020 – Mar. 2021
Source: Arizona Department of Health Services; California Health & Human Services Agency; Florida Department of Health; Hawaii State Department of Health; Ohio Department of Health
The state trends provide some evidence of a COVID-induced decline in births, but the story varies across states. Arizona (11.0% YoY drop in Feb. ’21) shows a noticeable decline, and other states—California (18.8% YoY drop in Feb. ’21) and Hawaii (15.2% YoY drop in Feb. ’21)—show steeper declines, though Hawaii’s numbers recover somewhat by March. Florida and Ohio’s year-over-year births decline in December and January, but rise in subsequent months.
There could be numerous explanations for the difference in birth declines across states. A cursory review suggests that COVID-19 deaths do not explain variation across the selected states well—for example, although year-over-year births fell following Florida’s initial spike in COVID deaths in April 2020, they fell at a similar rate as pre-COVID. Meanwhile, Hawaii’s large year-over-year birth declines in January and February 2021 occurred in spite of relatively limited and stable COVID deaths in Hawaii in April and May 2020. Although these two facts are not enough on their own to rule out state COVID deaths influencing birth rates, they do provide pause in concluding that state deaths explain the variation.
Another possible explanation is that the timing or strength of states’ COVID-related policies affected the timing or extent of birth declines. Yet states promulgated policies on a similar timeline overall, and because states aggregate their birth data on a monthly basis, it is difficult to discern a relationship between the timing of a state’s policy changes and its respective decline in births. Perhaps the strength of state policy changes is more relevant, but this variable is somewhat harder to measure. However, it does seem that two of the states with the largest drops (California and Hawaii) also had more ubiquitous restrictions and closures.
Unemployment can produce a great deal of stress and uncertainty, and state unemployment rates may provide another explanation for variation in state birth rates. Though unemployment rates spiked in all states, Hawaii and California’s unemployment rates spiked to more than 20% and 15%, respectively, and remained elevated relative to other states in subsequent months (Figure 2). Indeed, Hawaii and California’s unemployment trends are notable given the larger births declines occurring in those states. As Kearney and Levine posit in their analysis, there is a relationship between unemployment rates and births, and this initial evidence from the states suggests that the relationship merits further study.
Figure 2. Monthly Unemployment Rates by State, Jan. 2020 – Feb. 2021
Setting the cause of cross-state differences aside, state birth data do indicate fewer births nationally in 2020 relative to the previous year.3 That suggests that COVID-19 may have accelerated an existing trend, and data from the Current Population Survey help to place the past year’s decline in context. Using a rough measure to approximate new births—the share of women who report having their own infant in their household—Figure 3 suggests that births have been declining gradually since 2000.
Figure 3. Percent of Women Reporting a <1 Year Old Child in Their Household, Jan. 2000 – Feb. 2021
Source: Social Capital Project analysis of Current Population Survey data
Notably, births dropped noticeably in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which officially ended in mid-2009. Observers will need to wait for more birth data from the COVID-19 era before determining whether or not COVID-related birth declines represent a blip on the radar or another inflection point in a sustained decline.
Regardless, declining births before and during COVID-19 indicate cause for concern. Lower fertility can have serious economic ramifications, and from a social capital perspective, the recent birth decline has potential to reduce the number of family connections that enhance individuals’ lives and that sustain American communities.
In a recent article, Lyman Stone highlighted different consequences of low fertility, such as rising loneliness and aging alone, that the Project has studied in past reports. He concludes: “The consequences of low fertility today will echo through Americans’ increasingly empty homes for decades to come, leaving millions more people isolated and adrift from wider society as they age.” For the sake of our societal health, we should hope that the birth decline due to the pandemic is only a short-term phenomenon, lest it usher in such a bleak reality for future generations.
1 One survey shows that more than half of couples that saw their fertility treatment cycles cancelled would have gone ahead with the treatment despite the pandemic if they had been allowed to do so; nearly 6 in 10 would have preferred the option to start treatment. See Table 3: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7783482/
2 Given that the data are provisional, they should not be taken as the final word on birth numbers in these states. Subsequent data updates by state health agencies may revise provisional birth numbers down or, more likely, up.