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When the pandemic began, I didn’t place any bets on what the future would hold. But if I had, I would certainly be out a lot of money. One of my expectations was that pandemic-induced economic uncertainty would result in a baby bust. I had research on my side indicating that unemployment leads to reduced conceptions. Others made similar predictions—Brookings Institution researchers forecast in June 2020 that the pandemic would result in up to half a million fewer births in 2021. “Recessions mean fewer children,” they wrote.
But they, and I, were wrong. Couples didn’t let pandemic isolation go to waste. A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) actually detected an American baby bump in 2021, the first major reversal in declining domestic fertility rates since 2007. In total, about 46,000 more kids are running around out there than anticipated. Or perhaps crawling around.
So what happened?
For years, America’s fertility rates have been declining, captivating the attention of academics and journalists. As the demographic researcher Lyman Stone wrote in 2018, “Around the country, maternity wards are seeing less demand for their services, churches are seeing fewer babies brought in for baptism, and toy stores are struggling to stay in business. Fewer babies are being born in absolute terms and especially in terms of the national birth rates. Depending on how it is measured, birth rates are either at their lowest point in history or approaching it quickly.” If fertility rates had held steady at 2008 levels from 2009 to 2019, Stone estimates that America would have almost 6 million more kids today than it does. That’s a massive shift.
Domestic fertility rates matter in part because many American women report having fewer kids than they want. If they can get closer to their ideal family size, that’s a good thing. Fertility rates also matter because America is getting old. People are living longer (that’s a good thing too), but a population needs balance. If you don’t have enough young people, you also don’t have enough people working, coming up with new ideas and technologies to make the world a better place. The tax base for important social programs dwindles, and—less tangibly—society becomes more biased against change. Older people tend to prefer stability, and if they dominate society and politics, they can prevent nations from taking appropriate risks.
At first, pandemic fertility trends seemed to validate the direction of the pessimistic predictions, if not the magnitude: The NBER researchers, the economists Martha Bailey, Janet Currie, and Hannes Schwandt, found that births fell by 76,000 (2 percent) in 2020 relative to pre-pandemic trends. But because the pandemic didn’t begin in earnest in the U.S. until March of that year, the researchers don’t attribute this decline to COVID-related woes. Most of the declines were driven by reductions in births to foreign-born mothers. U.S.-born women saw just a tiny decline, one the researchers called “too small to be statistically meaningful.”
Then rates turned sharply upward, if unevenly: The baby bump was not uniformly distributed across age groups, races, or educational attainment. The researchers found that women under 25 saw the greatest increase, indicating that the pandemic led some women to start families sooner than they otherwise might have. This line of reasoning is buttressed by the fact that first births boomed the most across 2020 and 2021, with almost 70,000 more first births than expected, versus not quite 12,000 second births, and about 45,000 fewer third and higher-order births. To me, the data tell a story of people with young kids experiencing the difficulties of remote schooling, losing access to routine child care (either from their parents or paid help), and putting off having more children in the face of these challenges. People without any kids, meanwhile, were actually gaining time, given the elimination of other potential activities by the pandemic shutdowns—and they used that time to become parents.
When the researchers looked at women ages 25 to 44 (roughly the years women tend to have children) who had a college degree or more, they saw a pronounced baby bump as well. They hypothesize that this group was more likely to have kept their jobs during the pandemic and to work in jobs that became remote. The financial effects of the pandemic were muted for this group and having a child likely felt more doable.
The racial breakdown surprised me. Black women saw declines in birthrates during the first nine months of the pandemic, which haven’t bounced back. Every other race saw little or no decline, and a large baby bump during 2021. All in all, the researchers counted almost 23,000 missing Black babies. In contrast, they found an additional 22,000 babies born to Hispanic women, 45,000 to white non-Hispanic women, and 2,300 to Asian American and Pacific Islander women. One explanation is that Black workers are overrepresented among essential workers, and underrepresented among workers with a college education. During the height of the pandemic they lacked access to the remote jobs that made it easier for some women in other groups to start a family. But this line of thinking is not wholly satisfying, because Hispanic workers faced many similar challenges yet added to the baby bump despite having previously been the racial group most strongly contributing to America’s declining fertility rate.
Schwandt, one of the co-authors, cautioned that their racial data rely on self-identification and are a bit fuzzy, but “at the same time, I don’t think that these caveats or limitations are strong enough to [explain] all the difference” between Black birthrates and those of everyone else.
The surprise baby bump is worth celebrating, and worth studying to see if it contains any lessons for increasing fertility rates in the long run. One possible takeaway is the benefits of more time at home. We obviously don’t want another situation in which hanging around the apartment is the only option available, but flexible schedules and remote employment could make parenting seem more feasible for Americans who feel that family life and work life are incompatible. So could federal investments in the child-care sector, more immigration (in part to increase the number of people willing to work in that sector), and an all-out effort to tackle the affordability crisis, in particular the housing-affordability crisis.
Even as I write this, I can’t help but feel skeeved out a little. The phrase “lessons for increasing fertility rates” sounds like such a clinical way to say: “We want more people to make the extremely personal decision to have more children” or, less generously, “We’d like more women to put their bodies, time, and careers on the line for the sake of the labor market.”
Despite my wariness of government intervention into family-planning decisions, though, we know (as I’ve mentioned) that many women want to have more children than they end up having. And most of the policy levers that pro-natalists have to boost the fertility rate are probably worth pulling anyway, because they could make daily life less difficult.
Now for a cold dose of reality: Declining fertility rates aren’t just an American phenomenon, suggesting that pulling these levers might not do very much to increase the birthrate. A United Nations report shows that total fertility has fallen over recent decades in many countries. Today, close to half of all people live in a country where lifetime fertility is below 2.1 live births per woman, the so-called replacement rate needed to keep a population stable. Even countries with stronger social safety nets, such as Sweden and Norway, have seen declining fertility rates. Evidently, the complex decision making that goes into having a child is not perfectly reducible to the strength of a country’s welfare state.
America’s pandemic baby bump and its faltering childbearing rates overall may tell the same story about opportunity cost. In most countries, especially wealthier ones, adults simply have a lot of options for how to spend their time and money: seeing a movie, hanging out with friends, buying a larger house, shopping for clothes, going out to dinner. During the pandemic, some of those options disappeared or became a lot riskier—and so having a kid gained in relative value.
America’s historic openness to immigration has shielded us from becoming a country with a declining population, a phenomenon that would push our already teetering social-welfare programs over a proverbial cliff. But as American policy makers turn against immigration (Republicans) or shy away from the perceived political risk of the issue (Democrats), a depopulating country becomes a much more imminent threat.