Acton Institute Powerblog

The economics behind the COVID-19 baby bust

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some academics predicted a “baby boom,” as couples found themselves locked down with nothing to do. But those familiar with economics knew differently – and the data have now backed us up.

The coronavirus “baby boom” has turned into a “baby bust.” The CDC reported that U.S. births in the month of December 2020, nine months after the lockdowns began, fell by 8% compared with December 2019. The same pattern is seen in state-by-state results reviewed by the media. In places like Hawaii (30%), California (10%), Florida (8%), Ohio (7%), and Arizona (5%).

The impact will be enormous. The Brookings Institution has estimated 300,000 to 500,000 American babies will never be born due to the global pandemic. And there is no end in sight. The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research forecasts that the baby bust will last until August – the longest streak of lowered fertility in 100 years, including the Great Depression and the 2008 recession.

The baby bust has made life harder for those who wish to adopt children. And it likely increased the number of abortions.

What brought this birth dearth on? Uncertainty and economic hardship.

“People make long-term decisions when they have confidence about the future, and if there’s anything that undermines confidence about the future, it’s this massive pandemic,” Philip Cohen, a demographer at the University of Maryland, told NBCLX. Cohen also found that marriages had declined due to COVID-19. In Italy, the number of new marriages fell by more than half.

“The longer this period of uncertainty lasts, the more it will have lifelong effects on the fertility rate,” said Tomas Sobotka, a researcher at the Vienna’s Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. fertility rate – which has been falling for years – is adversely impacted by the culture of death. Figures including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and (former) Prince Harry have all questioned or asserted that people in the West should have fewer children. But the global food supplydietary supply adequacy, and life expectancy have risen as infant mortality rates fell – refuting decades of Cassandra warnings that overpopulation would cause a Malthusian depletion of global resources. The rhetoric became so pitched that a UN climate chief told young people to stop worrying and have babies.

Ironically, a higher birthrate may have slowed the spread of COVID-19.

Right or wrong, economics plays a large role in couples’ decisions to have a baby. Government lockdowns decimated the previously roaring U.S. economy, and short-term “stimulus” checks provide no security about the real status of the workplace. “When the labor market is weak, aggregate birth rates decline; when the labor market improves, birth rates improve,” wrote Brookings scholars Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine.

Economics impact all of life, including the formation of new life. Its effects may be worse in poorer and more secular nations. But, as I wrote in 2016:

[T]he life-sapping effects remain the same across continents and cultures.

Witness the fact that, according to one recent study, due to the Great Recession 151,082 American women will never be mothers. Princeton researchers Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt found that more than 400,000 Americans will never be born, because women became skittish about marriage and childbearing after living through a period of high unemployment and the uncertainty it brings.

This underscores a simple yet underappreciated truth: Economic policy affects the health and well-being of families. Healthy family life and economic flourishing walk hand in hand.

This should hardly be surprising. The root word of “economics,” οἰκονομικά, means the management of a home. Social conservatives concerned about the nation’s plunging marriage and fertility rates should support policies that lead to economic prosperity.

For now, we should all understand that the government has provided incentives to violate God’s very first commandment to mankind: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.