The COVID baby bust and the risks of declining birth rates

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

At the start of the coronavirus lockdowns, some predicted that all the time Americans spent indoors with little to do would lead to a baby boom. It will be several months before definitive data is available, but evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic will actually lead to a baby bust.

The combined influence of stress, economic uncertainty and fewer opportunities for people to meet could lead to as many as 500,000 fewer babies born in the U.S. in 2021, one study found. Any coronavirus baby bust would extend a trend that has seen U.S. birth rates decline since the start of the Great Recession. In 2019, the average American woman could be expected to have 1.7 children, the lowest rate ever recorded. In 1958 — at the height of the baby boom — that figure was 3.5.

Lower birth rates aren’t just a statistical curiosity. Economists fear that the U.S. could be headed for what some call a “demographic time bomb,” a situation in which a country’s working-age population is too small to support its retired citizens. Such a scenario can have a devastating effect on a nation’s economy. In Japan, a surging elderly population and shrinking workforce has caused a national crisis resulting in a labor shortage, slowed economic growth and a sharp rise in government spending.

Why there’s debate

Research indicates that declining birth rates are closely correlated to economic uncertainty. Polls show that Americans, on average, want larger families than they currently have. But when people lack confidence in their circumstances, they are less likely to feel comfortable having children. Government support in the form of free childcare, maternity care, paid leave and even direct monthly payments to parents could make them feel safer having babies, experts say. Others call for eliminating “motherhood penalties” that often force women to delay having children so they don’t suffer professionally.

A change in cultural mindset, others say, can also go a long way towards increasing the U.S. birth rate. Other countries have launched national campaigns urging their citizens to have more children. If Americans understand the long-term dangers that low fertility rates pose, they’ll be more willing to set aside their short-term financial concerns, some say.

Others argue that declining birth rates are a good thing. Reduced fertility can be seen as a side effect of women gaining more authority over their major life decisions. Programs aimed at boosting fertility could reverse some of those hard-won gains, they argue. There are also concerns that boosting the population will exacerbate climate change by increasing demand on fossil fuels. Rather than relying on native-born Americans, the U.S. should welcome more immigrants to build up its workforce, some argue.

What’s next

Some experts say there’s a chance the U.S. could see a baby boom in the early part of next year as the country gradually returns to normal, but it’s unclear whether that would be enough to make up for the drop in births caused by the pandemic.


The government must provide people with the resources they need to have kids

“When you look at childcare, health care, housing, or education costs … these are things that put a big damper on the number of children that people have, and also make it difficult to raise them. I hope we're learning lessons. … If we have the capacity to learn from that, we can make some decisions that really make it better and easier and more fulfilling to raise children in the future.” — Sociologist Philip Cohen to NBCLX

Working mothers need more support

“For years, the U.S. has made domestic policy that has punished women for becoming mothers, and by extension, de-incentivized those who want to have as many children as they would like. This is one reason why the birth rate has declined so much: women are not given enough material support by the state to be able to raise children while still leading prosperous, economically productive lives.” — Moira Donegan, Guardian

Ending the recession quickly can help reverse the pandemic baby bust

“If shocks to economic conditions prove to be persistent, then changes in birth rates will be as well. A deeper and longer-lasting recession will then mean lower lifetime income for some people, which means that some women will not just delay births, but they will decide to have fewer children.” — Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, Brookings

Americans need to understand the threat that demographic imbalance poses

“Most important, the U.S. simply needs to change its mentality. Population stability was never something we had to worry about before, but it is now.” — Noah Smith, Bloomberg

Working mothers need more support

“There is room to improve the support of women who wish to pursue careers and have children through maternity and paternity leave, subsidized childcare and protection of job status when taking time off to care for children.” — Christopher J.L. Murray, The Hill

A low birth rate makes many problems more manageable

“In brief, slower U.S. population growth is not alarming. Moving gradually towards population not a panacea for America’s problems. However, it will make it far easier to address problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, homelessness, extreme socio-economic inequalities and human rights abuses.” — Joseph Chamie, The Hill

Immigration can prop up America’s workforce

“The obvious solution is to allow workers from countries where the population continues to grow or exceeds job opportunities, to make up for shortfalls. That is, immigration.” — Frida Ghitis, CNN

A higher birth rate can’t come at the expense of women’s rights

“Birth rates are declining … perhaps because wider access to contraception has given women reproductive autonomy in a way we’ve never seen before but genuine concerns about declining population can quickly become conversations about curbing women’s rights.” — Vicky Sprett, Refinery29

The government should send parents a monthly child allowance

“For quite some time, women in the United States have been telling surveys and researchers that they want to have more children than they have. If the federal government helped provide the means for these parents to expand their families, perhaps the U.S. birthrate would increase over time.” — Kaylee McGhee White, Washington Examiner

There’s little evidence that government initiatives can boost birth rates

“We need to reverse the declining birth rate. Liberals would like lots of federally funded family-friendly programs — guaranteed pre-K, paid family leave and the like. Europe has done all those, and its fertility rates are no better than ours.” — Peter Morici, MarketWatch

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