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Will the Birth Rate Crash?

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Twelve years after the start of the financial crisis, we have yet to see a sustained increase in annual births, as the US fertility rate continues to drift lower. The US Census Bureau has been forecasting an increase for over five years, only to be confounded by the continuing economic pressures on couples and families as they age into "typical" child-bearing years.


Now, with another severe recession beginning, where are fertility trends and US births heading?


Normally we would expect a drop in the birth rate as economic pressures discourage taking on new financial burdens. But, this is no ordinary recession. Given the expansive nature and dramatic onset of business shutdowns, as many find themselves stuck at home with a lot of free time, some think there may be a mini baby boom on the way a year from now.


In a recent Washington Post column, Andrea Dvorak posed the question:


Commenters rushed to insert their opinions. Most focused on how the lack of space and sudden familiarity with a spouse's "work voice" and daily habits has strained relationships, and was more likely to lead to divorce rather than intimacy.


First, let's look at the effects on births of the 2008-9 recession, and how this recession (looking at differences and similarities) might impact birth rates going forward.


Birth trends in the US through previous recessions and other major social changes (e.g., World War II and the Baby Boom effect.)



We can see that shortly after the 2008-09 financial crisis, there was a sharp downturn in births. In the recovery period fertility rates continued to slide, depressing total births.


Birth rates by age of the mother show a major shift.

For mothers under 30, fertility rates show no sign of a turnaround:



There is a much brighter picture for mothers over 30, but, even with that, rates for those aged 30 to 34 have flattened since the 2008-9 recession.



A big factor in declining birth rates after the 2008-9 recession was initially poor job prospects that slowed family formation for a few years. As the job market recovered, concerns rose about the growing costs of having children -- the costs of child care, home prices, and funding college education.


Part of the rise in birth rates for women over 30 is simply the delayed births for many of those under age 30. Higher rates of educational attainment, longer duration of post-secondary education, focus on career to increase return on investment in education, rising marriage ages for both men and women, and improving health outcomes for later-aged births are also major factors in delaying giving birth and having more than one child.


Looking ahead, it's hard to imagine any of those factors improving as we stare down the barrel of double-digit unemployment rates and the uncertainty of a re-emerging pandemic.


Perhaps the massive rise in deficit spending, along with the growing need for a bigger social safety net, will permanently improve the economics and security of raising kids. The current crisis has made the need for sick-leave pay abundantly clear to many more households.


Clearly we have shattered the "we can't afford it" or "how will we pay for it" myths.


We have all the money we need when a crisis arises, so it may seem more people will be skeptical about the affordability argument. And if a need for better sick-leave policy arrangements becomes ingrained in public discourse, perhaps the need for better child-care leave will also become more widely assumed.


But without any significant changes to the social safety net for mothers and families, or other measures to reduce the costs of raising children or improve their ability to afford education, we can expect significant further declines in birth rates over the next few years at least.


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