Demographer says initial data shows pandemic ‘baby drop’, not ‘baby boom’
New mum Susie Cagle and her husband discovered they were pregnant last March – the day before California’s lockdown. Cagle says she knew right away that the next nine months would be some of the most stressful times of her life.
“My husband owns a bar and a concert hall, so it was immediately closed, still closed, with no income. And then I lost my job and our health insurance,” she says. “So on paper, it was basically the worst possible time for us to have a baby.”
University of Maryland Sociologist Philippe Cohen says Cagle’s story shows why the pandemic has led to declining birth rates — or a “baby bust” — rather than a baby boom.
“Whenever there are uncertainties or insecurities, it is difficult to make long-term commitments,” he says. “And when having kids is in your control, that’s the kind of thing you can put off or put off when the time isn’t right.”
Preliminary monthly data shows birth rates fell 5% to 8% in the second half of 2020 compared to 2019 in states including Florida, California and Ohio, he says. The data begins to reflect people changing their minds about having children around March 2020, and Cohen expects the decline to continue.
The reasons for the 20th century baby boom are more complicated than soldiers returning from war and starting families, Cohen says. After World War II, people had a lot of faith and confidence that the coming era would bring prosperity.
“Not only had people experienced the [Great] Depression and war, but there was huge investment in suburbia and home ownership and a kind of very strong pro-native, pro-nuclear family culture that came together,” he says.
Even before the pandemic, the United States had not recovered from the drop in births that followed the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, he says.
Now, Cohen says people with children are perplexed that anyone would try to get pregnant during such a difficult time for parents, especially those with young children.
“Those who can work from home have to work from home with their children, and those who can’t work from home have either lost their jobs or are struggling to find child care. And child care costs have gone up and day care centers have closed,” he says. “And there’s just an enormous amount of stress and worry and anxiety.”
In the long term, falling birth rates could leave the United States without enough workers, rendering the country unable to fund programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The company can manage the potential financial consequences and use immigration to build the workforce if needed, he says.
But something else bothers him: people don’t realize their dream of having a family.
“If I think that the decline in births is a problem, it is mainly because it signals that there are people who are unhappy and that this unhappiness is unevenly distributed,” he says. “So people who are going through a tough time right now – whose businesses are closed, whose jobs are lost, whose housing or health care is insecure – those people cannot have the life they wanted. “