Coronavirus pandemic could lead to baby bust with nearly half a million fewer births in the US, predicts study

Researchers examined data from previous studies on fertility in the US during the recession of 2007-2009 and the 1918 influenza pandemic to forecast 300,000-500,000 fewer births next year

                            Coronavirus pandemic could lead to baby bust with nearly half a million fewer births in the US, predicts study
(Getty Images)

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to lead to a baby bust rather than a baby boom, with researchers predicting 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births than expected in the US next year. Economists from the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, looked at studies of fertility during the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2007-2009 recession and considered current factors such as job losses and other economic uncertainties, anxieties and physical distancing, to make their projections.

"The Covid-19 episode will likely lead to a large, lasting baby bust. The pandemic has thrust the country into an economic recession. Economic reasoning and past evidence suggest that this will lead people to have fewer children. The decline in births could be on the order of 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year. We base this expectation on lessons drawn from economic studies of fertility behavior, along with data presented here from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the 1918 Spanish flu," says the research team.

It includes Melissa S Kearney, nonresident senior fellow-economic studies, and Phillip Levine, the Katharine Coman and A Barton Hepburn Professor of Economics at Wellesley College.

"When the public health crisis first took hold, some people playfully speculated that there would be a spike in births in nine months, as people were 'stuck home' with their romantic partners. Such speculation is based on persistent myths about birth spikes occurring nine months after blizzards or major electricity blackouts. As it turns out, those stories tend not to hold up to statistical examination. But the Covid-19 crisis is amounting to much more than a temporary stay-at-home order. It is leading to tremendous economic loss, uncertainty, and insecurity. That is why birth rates will tumble," say economists.

Does recession mean fewer children?

The Covid-19 public health crisis has badly damaged the economy and the recession is likely to last for many months. The Federal Reserve forecasts that the unemployment rate will still be at 9.3 percent by the end of the year, says the study. Another report predicts that 42% of recent layoffs will be permanent. "Though many of these workers will eventually find new employment, research has shown that recession-related job loss leads to persistent, large negative effects on lifetime earnings,"
say experts. 

The Covid-19 crisis is amounting to much more than a temporary stay-at-home order. It is leading to tremendous economic loss, uncertainty, and insecurity, and that is why birth rates will tumble, say experts (Getty Images)

Data from the Great Recession led economists to predict that women will have many fewer babies in the short term, and for some of them, a lower total number of children over their lifetimes. According to their analysis, the Great Recession led to a large decline in birth rates, after a period of relative stability. The US birth rate dropped from 69.1 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2007 to 63.0 births per 1,000 women in 2012. That 9% drop meant roughly 400,000 fewer births. 

States with a more severe recession had a larger drop. The researchers analyzed Vital Statistics birth data from the National Center for Health Statistics, population data from the US Bureau of the Census, and state unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2003 to 2018. They found that states in which the recession was most severe experienced larger drops in births. "In this simple analysis, we find that a one percentage point increase in unemployment reduces the birth rate by 1.4%. Over a longer period, from 2003 and 2018, we find that a one percentage point increase in the state unemployment rate led to a 0.9% reduction in the birth rate," says the team. 

1918 flu and births

Researchers say that large spikes in death during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic were matched by large declines in births. "Determining causation is always difficult, but the precision with which the spikes match strongly suggests this was a causal impact," they explain. Rough estimates suggest that the steady-state monthly birth rate during this period was 24 births per 1,000 population. Each spike in the Spanish flu pandemic led the birth rate to fall roughly 21 births per 1,000 population, representing a 12.5% decline. "When the death rate dropped again, birth rates returned to normal levels, but did not 'overshoot', implying fewer births overall," they argue. 

Large spikes in death during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic were matched by large declines in births, shows analysis (Getty Images)

The team, however, says that there are both similarities and differences when drawing lessons from the 1918 pandemic for the Covid-19 pandemic. They explain that the drop in births that resulted from the Spanish flu was likely due to the uncertainty and anxiety that a public health crisis can generate, which could affect people’s desire to give birth, and also biologically affect pregnancy and birth outcomes.

"That could be true during this crisis as well. But, unlike what we’re experiencing today, the economy contracted only modestly at the time of the Spanish flu because the ongoing war effort supported manufacturing," says the team. This, says the team, suggests that Covid-19 could have a bigger impact since the public health crisis has hit the economy too. "Furthermore, women today have access to much more effective forms of contraception. On the other hand, a much larger share of the Spanish flu deaths was concentrated on those in their childbearing years," they add.

Impact of Covid-19 pandemic 

The analysis says that the monthly unemployment rate in the US jumped from 3.5% to 14.7% in April and 13.3% in May. Technical issues in collecting these data might imply that the actual unemployment rates in those months were likely 5 and 3 percentage points higher, respectively, say researchers. They say that would bring them to about 19.7% and 16.3%. The team further explains that while it is difficult to forecast the 2020 annual unemployment rate, assuming a 7 to 10 percentage-point jump to 10.6% to 13.6% "seems reasonable".

"Based on the findings presented, this economic shock alone implies a 7% to 10% drop in births next year. With 3.8 million births occurring in 2019, that would amount to a decline between 266,000 and 380,000 births in 2020," the report states.

Besides the economic impact, there will likely be a further decline in births as a direct result of the public health crisis and the uncertainty and anxiety it creates, and perhaps to some extent, social distancing, argues the team. "Our analysis of the Spanish flu indicated a 15% decline in annual births in a pandemic that was not accompanied by a major recession. And this occurred during a period in which no modern contraception existed to easily regulate fertility," they emphasize.

Combining these two effects, researchers predict that the US could see a drop of 300,000 to 500,000 births. "Additional reductions in births may be seen if the labor market remains weak beyond 2020. The circumstances in which we now find ourselves are likely to be long-lasting and will lead to a permanent loss of income for many people. We expect that many of these births will not just be delayed – but will never happen. There will be a Covid-19 baby bust. That will be yet another cost of this terrible episode," says the research team.

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