June 26, 2020

Credit: FatCamera / Getty Images

These days, we wonder a lot about the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. What will this crisis mean for our jobs? Will schools be open in the fall? When will we be able to return to our favorite activities? One topic that you’re probably not thinking about — but that will have a huge national impact — is birth rates. Melissa Kearney, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at Brookings, argues in a recent report (co-authored with Wellesley College professor Phillip Levine) that we are headed for a baby bust.

Three Takeaways:

  • Research on past economic downturns demonstrates an extremely close relationship between the level of economic stability and birth rates, even prior to widespread access to birth control. It’s practically one-to-one; Kearney says that a 1% increase in unemployment correlates with a 1% decrease in babies born. We can therefore use the contours of the economy today to predict what might happen to birth rates nine months from now. 
  • Kearney predicts that between 300,000 and 500,000 fewer births will take place due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. The roughly 7-10% increase in unemployment during the last few months will correspond to a proportionate decrease in couples choosing to conceive. Kearney says that we shouldn’t expect couples to compensate by having lots more kids after the pandemic; decisions not to have kids now may well turn out to be permanent.
  • The economic recession isn’t the only factor that Kearney and Levine considered. 500,000 - the upwards limits of their estimate - also takes into account the additional uncertainty and anxiety created by the public health side of the crisis. The economists looked back at the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and found that, just as in more modern periods of financial instability, the epidemic was accompanied by lower-than-usual birth rates.

More Reading:

  • Check out this report from the Population Reference Bureau for a bird’s eye view of the relationship between economic prosperity (or lack thereof) and the birth rate in the United States.
  • Vox’s analysis of falling birth rates in the United States considers how the measure can function as both an indicator of economic health and as a contributing factor.
  • If you’ve heard what Kearney calls the “urban myth” of upticks in birth rates nine months after a blizzard or blackout, check out this Washington Post article digging into the history of this phenomenon nine months after a blizzard in Buffalo, New York. You can also find J. Richard Udry’s study examining a purported baby boom after the Great Blackout of 1965 here.

COVID-19, Fertility, babies, Melissa Kearney, health

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