Social media users were quick to dub a potential generation of children conceived during lockdown “coronials” or future “quaran-teens.” But wordplay aside, it is far from obvious how the pandemic will affect birth rates, in the U.S. or anywhere else.
Back in March and April, there were many predictions, of varying seriousness, that the wave of lockdowns in this country would lead to a baby boom. Couples were stuck at home together with only so much Netflix to watch. This theory, though, was based on gut feelings rather than data. Data from other events that kept people home, such as major urban blackouts, led social scientists to suggest that the pandemic would, at most, cause a “baby blip.” Still, some speculated that a nudge to the declining birth rate could provide a silver lining to a difficult year. After 2019, which marked the lowest number of U.S. births in 35 years, even a blip might help.
The reality has proved more complex. Many children are born to couples who aren’t living together. Assuming these couples are seeing each other in person less, their drop in contact may offset couples who have lived together in lockdown and after. The particular nature of this emergency may also discourage purposeful conceiving. People who can get pregnant have good reason to want to avoid hospitals right now, even if they are not otherwise at high risk from COVID-19. Not only are they potentially exposing themselves and their unborn children to the novel coronavirus, but they may have to go through labor without their partners. Many hospitals continue to restrict the presence of family members, even spouses.
As a recent article in The Economist suggested, we may see a divide in the pandemic’s effect on birth rate between places where contraception remained available in lockdown and places where it didn’t. The World Health Organization reported that two-thirds of 103 countries surveyed between mid-May and early July experienced some level of disruption to family planning and contraception services. The resulting unintended pregnancies will not be evenly distributed worldwide. Couples were equally bored everywhere, but didn’t have equal levels of control over whether sex led to pregnancy.
We may still see a small baby boom in the U.S. after a vaccine arrives and Americans begin to feel safer. Some prospective parents put off trying for a child under the pandemic’s stressful conditions, and they may resume their plans once the situation no longer seems so precarious. Those who were receiving fertility treatments or pursuing in vitro fertilization were among those who had to put elective medical procedures on hold earlier this year. They, too, may opt to resume once they feel comfortable. Adults who live alone also may be eager to jump back into the search for a long-term romantic partner (or a short-term one that could lead to an unplanned pregnancy) after months of forced solitude and Zoom dates. The 1918 flu epidemic led to a fall in birth rates worldwide in 1919, but rates bounced back in 1920.
There is, however, another strong possibility. Many childless adults saw friends and relatives with kids struggle this year. Relying on family for help may be less practical with grandparents at higher risk because of age or preexisting health conditions. Even when paying for child care is in reach, options are shrinking. A July report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children predicted that 40% of the programs it surveyed would not survive without government intervention. The day cares that do survive are likely to continue to raise prices, as parents compete to secure fewer open slots.
Because of child care and educational demands, many parents, mostly women, have had to cut back their hours or drop out of the workforce completely. (This is not to mention the millions of parents who lost their jobs outright.) Social norms contribute to this trend, but in cases where the male partner in a heterosexual couple earns more, the choice of which parent will stay home is often an economic one. And the vast majority of kids in one-adult households live with their mothers.
Whether parents – male or female – lose their jobs or choose to leave the workforce because they are making the best of limited choices, it deepens the pandemic’s economic effect. Historic data shows that an atmosphere of economic insecurity depresses the birth rate. As Stephanie Coontz, an expert in family studies and a professor emeritus at the Evergreen State College, told USA Today, “People tend to postpone kids when they are insecure about the future.”
On top of this, prospective parents may have watched their friends with kids field criticism that they’re insufficiently committed or not grateful for the extra time with their children. With all these factors in play, it isn’t hard to imagine the pandemic could lead to a baby bust, whether temporary or permanent. A Guttmacher Institute survey of sexually active American women, ages 18 to 34, found that about a third of them said they wanted to delay pregnancy or have fewer children because of the pandemic. Those numbers were even higher for women in lower-income families.
Unless we take steps as a country to ensure that child care remains available and affordable, we can’t blame many childless Americans for concluding that kids are financially out of reach. Nor can we blame existing parents for delaying or abandoning plans for additional children.
The United States is not the only country that needs to consider ways to support parents during the pandemic and beyond it. Japan has struggled with an aging population for years and has tried several approaches. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide recently called on health insurers to cover IVF procedures in an attempt to offset a worrying trend. As of January, two-thirds of European countries had introduced measures designed to raise birth rates, with varying success. Even Brazil, once home to an expanding population, now faces a fertility rate well below the 2.1 births per woman needed to maintain its existing population level.
It will take time before we can accurately measure COVID-19’s effect on the birth rate. But even before those results arrive, the pandemic should serve as a wake-up call. If Americans are serious about reversing the decline in our birth rate, we need to create a robust support system for parents and prospective parents, instead of hanging them out to dry.