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“COVID Baby Bust Could Lead to 500,000 Fewer Births Next Year”: Brookings Institute, via Washington Post

2020-06-17

photo of a great-grandson by Mary Molina, copyright reserved

The Washington Post on June 17 published an article titled, “COVID Baby Bust Could Lead to Half a Million Fewer Births Next Year” based on observations from the Great Recession of 2007-10 and the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.  During the recession, increased unemployment was associated with a decreased birth rate on a state-by-state basis.

There was a nine percent drop in birthrate overall, or 400,000 fewer births.  In the influenza pandemic, there were dramatic drops in conception rates during each of three waves of deaths from influenza and pneumonia.  Later rates of conception did not rise to make up for the falls.

The article in the Post is based on a piece from the Brookings Institute on June 15, which published this table:

Kearney and Levine, Brookings Institute

This shows the sudden and short-lived drops in conception rates during the waves of influenza that swept the United States (and the world.)  The first wave showed a dramatic drop in conception despite only a small increase in death rates.  The conception rates did not increase afterwards but returned to the average level.

The Brookings Institute article also mentions a myth that conception rates increase during blizzards and blackouts– as well as a popular claim that conception rates would increase during the lockdown period in March and April.  This myth is just that– there is no statistical evidence that this happens.  For individual families, increases in income result in more children; however, higher income levels across generations result in fewer children per family.

Increased social stability and wealth lead to lower birth rates in the following generations, smaller families, and a halt to population growth.  This has been apparent all over the world since 1970, preventing the population disaster that was expected at the time.  Total world population is expected to level off at perhaps ten billion people in the next few decades, barring a worldwide pandemic that kills at a really significant rate.

Within families in a single generation, decisions about having children are related to available income, and losses of income result in fewer conceptions– temporarily.  Delayed conception, for a woman, is eventually permanent because fertility declines inexorably with age.

Famines, earthquakes, heatwaves, and disease outbreaks, all events that increase death rates, also cause reduced rates of conception– followed by fewer births nine months later.  There were 3.8 million births in the US in 2019.  The Brookings Institute article concludes with an estimate of 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2020– unless the labor market continues to be weak in 2020, in which case the decline will be worse.  With the restrictions on immigration recently, it is to be expected that total US population will decline even if total US death rates do not significantly increase.

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