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Demographer Says Initial Data Shows A Pandemic 'Baby Bust,' Not A 'Baby Boom'

Newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. (Seth Wenig/File/AP)
Newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. (Seth Wenig/File/AP)

New mom Susie Cagle and her husband found out they were pregnant last March — the day before California went into lockdown. Cagle says she knew right away that the next nine months would be some of the most stressful times of her life.

“My husband owns a bar and music venue, so that was immediately closed, still closed, no income. And then I lost my job and our health insurance,” she says. “So on paper, it was basically the worst possible time for us to have a baby.”

University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen says Cagle’s story captures why the pandemic has led to a decrease in birth rates — or a “baby bust” — rather than a baby boom.

“Whenever there are uncertainties or insecurity, it’s hard to make long-term commitments,” he says. “And when having children is within your control, it’s the kind of thing that you can postpone or put off when the time isn’t right.”

Preliminary month-to-month data shows birth rates declined between 5% to 8% in the second half of 2020 compared to 2019 in states such as Florida, California and Ohio, he says. The data is starting to reflect people changing their minds about having kids around March of 2020, and Cohen expects the decline will continue.

The reasons behind the 20th century baby boom are more complicated than soldiers coming home from the war and starting families, Cohen says. After World War II, people had a lot of faith and confidence that the coming era would bring prosperity.

“Not only had people lived through the [Great] Depression and the war, but there was a huge investment in suburbanization and homeownership and a very strong sort of pro-natal, pro-nuclear family culture that all came together,” he says.

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. hadn’t recovered from the decline in births that followed the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, he says.

Now, Cohen says people who have children are perplexed by the notion that anyone would try to get pregnant during such a difficult time for parents, especially those with young kids.

“Those who can work at home are having to work at home with their kids, and those who can’t work at home have either lost their jobs or they’re scrambling to find child care. And child care costs have gone up and child care centers have closed,” he says. “And there’s just a tremendous amount of stress and worry and anxiety.”

In the long term, declining birth rates could leave the U.S. without enough workers, making the country unable to fund programs like Social Security and Medicare. Society can handle the potential financial consequences and utilize immigration to build up the workforce if needed, he says.

But something else does concern him: People aren’t fulfilling their dreams of starting a family.

“If I think declining births is a problem, it’s mostly because it signals there are people who are unhappy and that that unhappiness is unequally spread,” he says. “So the people who are having a hard time right now — whose businesses are closed, whose jobs are lost, whose housing or health care is precarious — those people aren’t able to have the life they wanted.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.