December 07, 2020

COVID Babies: Boom or Bust?

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

Back in April, there was speculation as to whether the coronavirus would lead to a baby boom, the premise being that people are home more than usual because of the pandemic, which could lead to an increase in baby- making activity. It was also thought that regular access to contraception might be interrupted.

However, at the time, sociologist Philip Cohen predicted a baby boom was highly unlikely, offering this explanation: "So even if a few people accidentally or on purpose decide to have a baby now, they will probably be outnumbered by the lost births from people meeting less, having sex with non-residential partners less and deciding now is not a good time."

In the same article, historian Stephanie Coontz agreed a baby boom was unlikely, noting that people tend to postpone having children when they are insecure about the future. Coontz stated: "Birth rates generally fall during recessions and depression, and since this pandemic is causing serious and likely long-lasting economic hardship, I don't expect many people to try for a child."

In June, economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine confidently predicted a baby boom was unlikely to occur. For a comparison, they pointed to the Great Recession, which led to a significant decline in birth rates. There were higher declines of birth rates in states where the recession was more severe. For another comparison, they mention the 1918 Spanish Flu, during which there was a significant decline in births. “Each spike in the Spanish Flu epidemic led the birth rate to fall roughly 21 births per 1,000 population,” they wrote.

In forecasting the possible impact of COVID on fertility, their analysis suggests a decline in births in the range of 300,000 to 500,000 in 2021. This takes into account not only economic hardships endured during the pandemic, but also social distancing norms, and anxiety about an uncertain future. Their conclusion: “There will be a COVID-19 baby bust.”

In July, the question of baby boom or baby bust was addressed in Psychology Today. Excellent points were made about concerns regarding medical care, as well as fears about hospital environments during a pandemic. Understandably, people might wait to have children until a time when prenatal care is safer and when there would be less worry about a shortage of medical professionals and medical supply. In the conclusion to this article, it was predicted that a baby boom is highly unlikely, but that we needed to take into consideration several factors, including how long the pandemic would last, how serious the economic problems would be, and if supply chains for contraception would be impacted.

By October, all indications were that a baby boom wasn’t happening. Forbes pointed out that fertility in the United States is in decline, recently being at its lowest rate in 35 years. A sociological explanation in this article is that women are more burdened than usual in the pandemic with childcare and household labor.

With many schools turning to remote education, women have taken on much of the extra work of helping their children with schoolwork and caring for them at home, all while trying to stay in the paid workforce. In an article that explores the enormous burden that women experience, sociologist Jessica Calarco explains that women build and maintain safety nets in the absence of help from state and federal policymakers. She writes: “When women do the work of the welfare state, it comes with a cost for women's well-being, women's relationships, and women's careers.”

Given the economic uncertainty presented by the pandemic, the general challenges faced by families and the disproportionate stress on women, it makes sense a baby boom wouldn’t happen during the COVID pandemic. An article in Time features a graphic with an all caps BABY BUST showing that if one wants to see a baby boom, we have to look back to when the baby boom occurred—1946 to 1964. There hasn’t been a baby boom since.

Keep in mind the birth control pill wasn’t approved by the FDA for contraceptive use until 1960. Since then, increased access to various forms of effective contraception has been a factor in declining birth rates. We can also consider the Millennial generation who currently is in the main age range for having children (ages 24-39). Major life events for Millennials have been delayed by the Great Recession. One of those milestones is having children. As of 2018, according to Pew Research Center, approximately 19 million Millennial women had given birth: “This amounts to more than half (55%) of all Millennial women, smaller than the shares of previous generations of women who had given birth at a comparable age.” It’s noted that many women become first-time mothers in their 40s. Depending on the choices that Millennials make about having children, “we’re looking at a fundamental and unprecedented change to our population,” says demographer Dowell Myers in the aforementioned Time article.

It was tempting to think there might be a pandemic baby boom. But the reality is that it’s not going to happen in the United States. Demographer Alison Gemmill addresses the subject this way: “People like this idea that people are stuck inside, they’re not going to have much to do. But people will use methods to prevent pregnancy. People that do want kids, I think they’re going to postpone.” Nearly a year into the pandemic, companies recognize the baby bust means there will be less demand for baby formula and diapers.

As for the contraception supply chain, it has been disrupted, as reported by Anna Louie Sussman, and is impacting access in lower-income countries. For example, there was a container with 50,000 IUDs being shipped to Iran that was held in a Dubai port for nearly three months. Constraints on access to contraception, and restrictions to health services, is especially a concern in poorer countries. As the pandemic continues into 2021, it’s possible that unintended pregnancies will increase in poorer countries, something that’s not expected to occur in wealthier countries such as the United States.

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