A recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study analyzes the effect of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on childbearing rates in the United States.
Study: The COVID-19 baby bump in the United States. Image Credit: Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock.com
Total fertility rate (TFR) is a measure of the expected number of children throughout a woman’s lifetime. Between 2007 and 2020, a significant reduction in the U.S. TFR from 2.1 to 1.6 was observed, which raised concerns regarding the strength of the future labor force and solvency of public programs that is dependent on younger generations.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and rise in unemployment rates are associated with a significant decrease in TFR. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers predicted that if unemployment remained high, there would be as many as 300,000-500,000 fewer births in 2021.
Consistent with this hypothesis, Wilde estimated a decrease in childbearing by 15% in 2021. This estimated decline was almost twice as large as estimates from the Great Recession.
There has been speculation that these values may not be accurate due to missing data and a surge in mortality rates in regions with greater economic stress due to pandemic lockdowns.
About the study
The current study used natality microdata and population estimates to generate seasonally adjusted assessments of childbearing for the U.S. between 2015 and 2021, as well as California between 2015 and February 2023. This study examined changes in fertility rates for different demographic groups in the study period.
Natality data was obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics and California Department of Health. Notably, California mothers were marginally older and more educated than average U.S. mothers.
In 2020, the nine-month unemployment was found to decrease birth counts, which continued at a faster rate in 2021. However, the reduction in fertility rates in 2020 was considerably less than what was predicted by standard statistical models.
A disproportionally larger birth rate decline was observed among foreign-born mothers. Comparatively, an unexpected increase in childbearing was observed in 2021 among U.S.-born women.
Interestingly, a differential timing in baby births was found for foreign- and U.S.-born mothers. The number of births started to decline for foreign-born mothers in January 2020; however, this type of decline was not observed for U.S.-born women.
The COVID-19 recession did not follow the pattern of previous recessions with respect to a baby bust. In fact, the 2020 COVID-19 recession was followed by a surge in births.
Similar surges in fertility rates were observed in Finland and South Korea. Nevertheless, many Mediterranean and East Asian countries reported decreased fertility rates after the pandemic.
Based on the analysis of California data, higher fertility rates were observed in U.S. births as compared to those only from U.S.-born women through February 2023. This increase in birth rates resulted in a net increase of 40,000 births between 2020-2021, with a possibility for an additional 134,000 births from January 2022 to February 2023.
The change in the trend of reduced birth rates during unemployment associated with the COVID-19 recession could be due to the significant support provided by the federal government, which included $650 billion in federal pandemic unemployment benefits between March 2020 and September 2021. Additionally, the increase in unemployment due to the COVID-19 recession was short-lived as compared to previous recessions.
During the pandemic, reduced employment, increased work-from-home opportunities, and pandemic aid may have increased childbearing in some groups. Many women experienced little income loss during the pandemic with economic gains due to pandemic support programs, which might have influenced fertility rates.
Several other factors, such as changes in pregnancy desires, intimacy patterns, the use of contraception, maternal stress, and relationship status, altered childbearing patterns during the pandemic.
In fact, the pandemic led some women to start their families earlier. This observation was based on the fact that the baby bump was more pronounced for women between 25 and 34 years of age and those with a college education. However, a significant decline in childbearing was observed among Black women, who were considerably affected by the recession and pandemic.
COVID-19 led to a significant rise in remote work, mostly for educated workers, which could be have contributed to an increase in baby bumps among college-educated women. One reason for the decline in births to foreign-born mothers could be that some pregnant women who are typically U.S. residents returned to their native country during lockdowns to be with their families.
As compared to previous recessions, the COVID-19 recession did not affect birth rates in similar intensity, except for certain groups within the U.S. This could be due to increased economic support from the federal government during the pandemic and improved opportunities for remote working.