Amid steady forecasts of demographic decline, one economics professor told CNA that a COVID-related “baby bust” could be worse than people predicted.
A Brookings Institution report published in June said that the economic shock caused by the coronavirus, combined with the social effects of the pandemic itself, could trigger a sharp decline in births.
Those predictions should not be dismissed, Dr. Catherine Pakaluk, a professor of social research and economic thought at the Catholic University of America, told CNA, noting that economic uncertainty can have a direct correlation with the birthrate.
“The money and the numbers tend to correlate with all the things we think matter for human flourishing,” she said, such as the “ability to grow and form families.”
In the Brookings report, authors Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine warned that the coronavirus pandemic might cause a “baby bust” rather than the “baby boom” some assumed could follow months of lockdowns.
They said that two events—the surge in deaths and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, and the economic decline resulting from lockdown measures—would both cause a drop in the birthrate from “300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year.”
“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,” Kearney and Levine wrote.
“We expect that many of these births will not just be delayed – but will never happen. There will be a COVID-19 baby bust.”
The study pointed to two major historical events for evidence for their prediction, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the Great Recession of a decade ago.
“The Great Recession led to a large decline in birth rates, after a period of relative stability,” the authors said, noting a fall in the birthrate from 69.1 births per 1,000 women of child-bearing age in 2007 to 63 births per 1,000 women in 2012.
Furthermore, the authors estimated a 15% decline in annual births due to the 1918 epidemic, which could predict a second major effect on the current birthrate given “the public health crisis and the uncertainty and anxiety it creates.”
Pakaluk praised the Brookings study as “totally reliable,” and said that the decline in births next year “could be on the extreme end of the numbers they predicted.”
“Birthrates have been falling anyway,” she said, noting a years-long trend which has continued even after the U.S. economy recovered from the Great Recession, which many assumed would bring a spike in the birthrate.
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.
“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.”