According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the birthrate for 2019 was the lowest since the figure was first recorded in 1909, with only 58.2 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 to 44.
There was also a 1% drop in the number of overall births from the previous year, with 3.75 million children born in 2019. While a growth in fertility rates requires a "replacement level" rate of 2.1 children for population replacement, the U.S. fertility rate sits at 1.7.
Then in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic entered the U.S. and spread rapidly. As coronavirus infection rates and deaths soared, states began instituting strict lockdowns or closures of non-essential businesses, the unemployment rate spiked to 14% and currently stands at more than 11%.
According to the Brookings report, the Federal Reserve has predicted that unemployment will hover near 10% by the end of the year.
The twin "catastrophic shocks" of the coronavirus and massive job losses will have a deep impact on an already-falling birthrate, Pakaluk said. Further complicating the matter could be a rise in political instability in a contentious presidential election year, which could further dissuade couples from choosing to have children.
The Brookings report also predicts that a longer economic malaise could further drive down the birthrate in the long-term. "Additional reductions in births may be seen if the labor market remains weak beyond 2020," the study concluded.
What might some of the long-term societal effects be of an extended drop in birthrates?
A smaller youth demographic could lead to a shrinking tax base, posing threats to the solvency of local governments.
"We're seeing, right this minute" COVID-related state budget cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars, Pakaluk said, to meet pension obligations and pay for schools. According to data from the State and Local Finance Initiative and reported by NPR, 34 states saw a revenue drop of 20% or more between March and May of 2020.
The present crisis could also force a national conversation about how to pay for programs such as Medicare, Pakaluk said.
On the individual family level, many might experience "the fertility gap," feelings of regret, incompleteness, or missed opportunities related to not having an extra child. Childless couples could be faced with finding a caregiver when they grow older, or children might feel the lack of an absent sibling.
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"We have reason to think that religious people, religious communities, are more resilient to these kinds of ups and downs," Pakaluk said of the current social anxiety and economic instability.
However, she noted, "we are in the throes of a fairly-unprecedented secularization."
Matt Hadro was the political editor at Catholic News Agency through October 2021. He previously worked as CNA senior D.C. correspondent and as a press secretary for U.S. Congressman Chris Smith.