When the pandemic hit, the stay-at-home orders didn’t give American families more babies, instead, it generated a “baby bust.” Now, economists found that the so-called bust recovered just as quickly as the economy picked up.
Recessions and a decline in birth rates go hand-in-hand in history — as seen with the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 influenza, when the pandemic started in early 2020. Similarly, economists predicted that a sharp decrease in jobs and household spending would result in a fall in conception rates.
Job cuts and business shutdowns resulted in 62,000 “missing births” in the U.S. from January 2020 to May 2020, the paper found. The lowest dip in approximate conception numbers happened in April, when the country saw the highest COVID-era unemployment rate at 14.7%.
But the “baby bust” was short-lived due to a rebound of 51,000 conceptions later in 2020, driven by fast growth in the labor market and the arrival of government relief programs to individuals and households.
Kearney and Levine
The paper, which was distributed this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, used five years of monthly birth data from October 2016 through September 2021, the most recent month available when the researchers conducted their analysis.
The research was co-authored by Melissa Schettini, an economics professor at the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine, economics professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. They calculated birth rates using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rapid recovery in birth rates was unexpected, said Kearney. Together with lower-than-expected poverty rates, the relatively sudden rebound in the birth rate can be seen as an indicator of strong government response to the economic situation. “People didn’t suffer as much because the government acted quickly, ” she said.
The immediate drop in conception rate in the U.S. at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak was part of a bigger global trend for countries with higher incomes. Arnstein Aassve, professor of social and political science at Bocconi University, has found that seven out of 22 countries with higher incomes experienced a sharp decline in birth rates at the beginning of the pandemic.
He attributed the explanation to a sense of uncertainty. “You may not forego childbearing totally, but at least you might postpone it until you see that times are a bit better,” Aassve told Scientific American. He also attributed the sentiment to people’s unfamiliarity with a new disease at the time.
Kearney said the NBER findings confirm this pattern. By comparing data from different states, she pointed out that although the number of COVID-19 cases in the region also contributed to the reduction of birth rates early in the pandemic, people started having more babies later in the year regardless of the number of new COVID-19 cases.
However, Levine said that the changes in 2020 are “far less significant” compared to the general U.S. trend in the last 15 years, which results in a roughly 20% drop in births. The decline in birth rates indicates a challenge ahead for labor supply.
An earlier paper by the two authors finds that highly educated women in their late thirties and early forties were the ones more likely to delay contraception in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. Many of those would likely have already had children at the beginning of the pandemic. However, as detailed data for the whole year is not yet available, the authors did not predict what demographics had more babies when the “baby bust” was over.