Why birth rates fell more sharply during COVID

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Recently-published data suggest that the birth rate in the U.S. declined considerably from 2019 to 2020, refuting hopes of a "baby boom" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to NBCLX, real-time data from several states showed marked declines in their birthrates in 2020. In Dec., 2020, Florida's birthrates declined 8% from the previous year, Ohio's by 7%, and Arizona's by 5%. Several major hospital systems also reported similar drops in birthrates from Dec., 2019 to Dec., 2020.

The real-time 2020 data from states follows a steady decline in the overall U.S. birth rate that reached its lowest recorded level in 2019. According to CDC data published in May, 2020, only 58.2 births were registered for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15-44 in 2019. The birth rate has fallen steadily for more than a decade, following a peak before the 2008 economic crisis.

While many had wondered if widespread changes to Americans' lifestyles-such as stay-at-home orders and cancellations of social events-could spur an increase in the birth rate, researchers told CNA that they instead had expected a continued decline during 2020. 

Jonathan V. Last, a journalist and author of the 2013 book on America's demographic challenges What To Expect When No One's Expecting, told CNA that he was "not surprised in the least" to hear the updated state figures. 

In the future, Last said that demographers will be curious to discover whether or not the number of births will "rebound" to the pre-pandemic years, or if the number will continue to decline. 

"We won't know the answer to this question for many years," said Last. "Probably at least a decade. But when a shock of this magnitude happens, the ripples take a long time to work their way out." 

Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was similarly unsurprised by the state numbers.

Back in Feb., 2020, Stone predicted that not only would there be no spike in births due to the coronavirus, but also that the virus--and ensuing state measures to prevent its spread, such as mandatory lockdowns--would result in a decline. At the time, he said that many people were skeptical of this assessment but he now believes that has "been vindicated." 

"Lockdowns communicate worry and a negative outlook on society, which motivates pessimism about fertility," Stone told CNA on Tuesday. 

Stone said that he does "not see any reason to be optimistic" about birth rates in the United States, but he added that they may stabilize after the pandemic is over. 

"If early data on January births shows a decline above 10-15% for that month, that would be a negative surprise," he said. "Alternatively, if births remain far below trend after October 2021, that would also be very worrying."

Despite this, Stone does not think that people should worry about the pandemic when it comes to deciding whether or not to bring a child into the world.

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