NEXT: Baby Bust…or Baby Boom?

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Baby Bust…or Baby Boom?
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Demographers have observed that, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent downturn in economic activity, birth rates in the U.S. have declined. Research from Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine observes that “that the Covid pandemic would lead to a decline in U.S. births of about 8%, as compared with the number of expected births without a pandemic, resulting in 300,000 fewer births this year than would otherwise be expected.” 

One might have anticipated that, at least in the early stages of the pandemic, couples would have snuggled up under lockdown and produced more children, not unlike what happens during a blizzard or massive power outage. Had the pandemic been confined to only a few months, that might well have been the response. But because the pandemic lingered, we’ve seen the drop in expected births. 

This outcome was, perhaps, predictable. Kearney and Levine base their conclusions on “the fact that economic factors affect people’s decisions about whether and when to have a baby.”

During periods of economic crisis, births have tended to decline. We saw this during the Great Depression, for instance, and even during the Oil Shocks of the 1970s. When faced with economic uncertainty, people tend to be cautious about having children or expanding their families.

The current baby bust has come at an inopportune moment in our country’s history.  Even before the pandemic, Millennials—owing to the ill-effects of the Great Recession, and because they are already carrying high student debt loads—had been delaying children and starting families (and buying first homes, it must also be said). The U.S. population is already greying, and a decline in births brought on by COVID-19 would only seem to exacerbate this situation.

There are six scenarios for how we might react to this decline in births.  

Scenario 1: It is possible that the waning of the pandemic—and, we hope, the unleashing of economic vitality once again—would mean that some people would look upon the future with greater optimism, and thus decide to have children and to expand their families. The Baby Boom generation was the result of such optimism after years of depression and world war. It is possible—although this is not a high-probability scenario—that after the pandemic, we could see a mini baby boom, albeit not on the scale of the one from 1945-1963.   

Scenario 2: What sort of reactions might we expect from politicians and policy-makers to this COVID-fueled “baby bust?” In the absence of native births, countries have often looked to the arrival of immigrants to offset the effects of declining birth rates. It is possible that U.S. policy will shift to be more welcoming of immigrants. But in our current political environment, it seems unlikely that we will see any increased immigration to the extent that it would dramatically alter this demographic picture.  

Scenario 3: It is possible that political leaders will enact so-called pro-natalist programs. Indeed, there would appear to be interest on both sides of the political aisle for such programs. A child tax credit was part of the recently enacted $1.9T stimulus bill. Senator Mitt Romney has proposed The Family Security Act, which “would provide a monthly cash benefit for families, amounting to $350 a month for each young child, and $250 a month for each school-aged child.” It would seem that in an era of continued partisan wrangling, there is at least some bi-partisan interest in pro-natalist legislation.  

Scenario 4: Pro-natalist policies have the inherent potential of being dangerously misogynistic. Taken to extremes, could we see new regulations that would, in essence, force women to produce more children? Would women of child-bearing age be forbidden from working outside the home, say, to aggressively “incentivize” them to stay home and produce children? What of those women who have not produced children? What would their fate be? And indeed, it would be naïve to think that in such a scenario where producing more children is understood as a national priority that, for some politicians, it would be a particular type of child birth that would be preferred. This is a dark, dystopian, Handmaid’s Tale-type of low-probability scenario.  

Scenario 5: Another scenario is that the pro-natalist impulse will be a spur for the government to build an infrastructure that makes it easier for those people who choose to have and raise children. If births decline during economic downturns like the Oil Shocks, this would indicate that the decision to have children is driven in great measure by economic, rather than emotional, considerations. And if this link between having children and economic conditions is true, it would also suggest that that very personal family decision is governed by the business cycle. Does this mean that economic booms and busts are mirrored by baby booms and busts?  

In the same way some government policies attempt to smooth out the business cycle, might similar policies be enacted that smooth out baby booms and busts? This would need to involve much more than simply a child tax credit. There would need to be policies that not only encourage births, but make raising these children easier. Giving birth is not the issue so much as it is raising the children so birthed that gives families pause. So, to that end, legislators would also need to establish maternity and paternity leave for one year, for example, or provisions for free child care, robust public education, the wide availability of pre-natal vitamins, and well-care visits (even in-house visits) during pregnancy and during childhood. (Many counties already provide this, of course.)

Such comprehensive policies would, to some extent, shield the personal decision to have children from economic considerations alone. Will the economic crisis caused by the pandemic be the spark whereby the U.S. establishes a family-encouraging infrastructure?  

Scenario 6: The most likely scenario, I suspect, is one where declining birth rates are not viewed as a significant enough problem by society at large, and certainly not one for government to meddle in, what we might call the “Leave Well Enough Alone” scenario.    

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast, CreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists. 

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