Economically speaking, the signs pointed to a baby bust. But new research on U.S. birth rates during the pandemic upended that expectation.
When COVID-19 hit in the early months of 2020, the nationwide birth rate had already been declining steadily for nearly 30 years, hitting a historic low in 2019. Then the pandemic introduced a historic moment of uncertainty, followed by a lockdown that brought with it a global recession.
So it was no surprise when a range of research entities announced in 2020 and 2021 that the U.S. was experiencing a baby bust based on initial numbers. In December 2021, Brookings calculated that there had been 60,000 “missing births” between October 2020 and February 2021 alone. Given precedent, such as past economic downturns—which tend to lead to lower fertility rates in response to financial constraints on families—and health crises, these predictions were not unfounded.
This week, however, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a working paper that instead shows evidence of a “COVID-19 Baby Bump” for some groups.
While there was in fact an overall reduction in the birth rate—measured as the annual number of births per thousand people in a population—across the country, the NBER researchers, analyzing data and microdata from the National Center for Health Statistics and the California Department of Health, determined that the decrease didn’t look the way many observers had predicted it would, with births driven down across the board. Rather, travel restrictions likely played a role: The rate of births from women born outside the U.S., which accounted for nearly 23% of births in 2019, plummeted in 2020. And soon after, the rate of births for U.S.-born mothers began to grow.
“The one thing we can say with a lot of confidence is that there was not a baby bust,” says Hannes Schwandt, associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University and a co-author of the report. “If anything, there was a baby bump.”
Schwandt adds that this reversal of expectation can provide a “little glimpse of positive news” from the catastrophic pandemic. (While environmental and other concerns about population size can make lower numbers seem like a good thing, economists and demographers generally see declining birth rates as a bad sign for societies, as they can stymie economic growth and lead to disproportionate population dynamics. Even Elon Musk took to Twitter to say we should “mourn the unborn.”)
There was a pronounced 2% decline in the number of births in 2020, compared to projections based on past trends, making up 76,000 fewer births than would have been expected that year. But one thing that Schwandt, along with his co-authors Martha Bailey, a professor of economics at UCLA, and Janet Currie, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, noticed about the birth reduction after lockdowns began in 2020 is that there was no nine-month lag before the drop-off began, which would have been the case if people chose not to conceive due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Instead, the birth rate for foreign-born mothers immediately dropped—indicating that those mothers who were statistically predicted to give birth in the U.S. either left the country due to the pandemic or could not enter due to travel restrictions. After the U.S. barred entry to travelers from China in January, births within the U.S. to mothers from China were almost 60% percent lower in 2020, for example. From March 2020 to January 2021, births to people from Latin America were 17% lower than anticipated. These rates steadily declined until the early months of 2021, when they began to reverse. The researchers do not know for certain the predominant circumstances around that finding—the numbers do not include information about anything related to immigration status, for example, Schwandt said—and intend to gain more insight into the data moving forward.
But toward the end of 2020, nine months after lockdowns began, the fertility rate of mothers born in the U.S. began to inch upwards. By the end of 2021, the rate of births among those mothers relative to its pre-pandemic trend was 6.2% higher—marking “the first major reversal in the U.S. fertility rates since the 2007 Great Recession,” according to the paper.
Certain subgroups of the population had significantly steep birth-rate increases. Many people started their families sooner than previous data would suggest: the groups with the greatest rates of change were mothers giving birth for the first time and young mothers, under the age of 25. The researchers noted that this could have been due to a confluence of factors. Poverty on the whole fell during 2020 and the net worths of higher-income families generally rose during the pandemic, while at the same time access to reproductive health care such as fertility services and abortions declined.
Women ages 30-34 and college-educated women ages 25-44, whom the researchers noted were more likely to have jobs that allowed for remote work, also had increases in fertility rates.
Data for California birth rates up through September of 2022 suggest that these increases may continue on a national scale. Schwandt noted that families that already have one child are more likely to have a second or third, so the U.S. could see ongoing results of the Covid-19 bump.
“The baby dividend of the pandemic might keep paying for a couple of years, just because the families that were started might continue to grow,” he adds.
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