Apparently, there’s a “COVID-19 Baby Bust” happening in the United States, and it’s dooming our country to economic challenges for years to come. Or at least that’s what some economists would have us believe.
In the past week, news outlets from CBS to The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal have covered this unfolding phenomenon. The New York Times op-ed was written by Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, the two research economists at the Brookings Institute who predict that there will be about 300,000 fewer U.S. births in 2021 than there would have been without the pandemic. This is a fine subject for study, and school districts should be prepared to adjust for potentially smaller classes of 2039 and 2040. As for the rest of the concerns, mostly to do with a potential eventual hit to the working age group compared to the dependent age groups (young and elderly people), there are ways to increase productivity without increasing births or immigration. More on this below.
It remains to be seen whether these predicted “missing births” will be made up for in the near future, once would-be parents get back on their feet, or whether these “missing births” will never be. Either way, even Drs. Kearney and Levine themselves concede that one year of lower births shouldn’t be a big problem—just that the blip compounds the “issue” of an already-declining American birth rate. More on this below as well.
Another economist’s response amounts to an eyeroll: Dr. Hannes Schwandt, an economics professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, who researches the connections between economics and fertility, told Refinery29, “Everyone’s screaming about, ‘Oh God, fertility is going down. That’s so bad.’ No, that’s not bad. People always want to make a bad story out of everything because that is what sells, that’s what gets your headlines.”
One area that does concern me is the class divide in terms of who is able to comfortably have a child right now and who isn’t. You wouldn’t know, for example, that there’s a baby bust by looking at how many of my friends are pregnant or recently gave birth. Nearly every one of my friends who have given birth since the end of 2020 (babies conceived after the pandemic started) works from home and has a partner who is still employed. They’re also all white. I recognize that they are among those of us fortunate to have been protected from the job losses and other disruptions that COVID-19 has levied on so many Americans. Millions of people—disproportionately BIPOC and low-income people—have not been so lucky, and it’s among those groups that birth rates have declined. This Refinery29 article explores the troubling dichotomy.
I very much dislike the idea that there are people who want to have a baby but don’t feel secure enough in their jobs, their finances, or their health to do so, and I agree with those who say that we should make parenting more compatible with market work. But I despise that so many economists place economic growth above planetary health, human wellbeing, and women’s empowerment when it comes to discussions around falling fertility. The U.S. trend toward low fertility over the past four decades is something to be celebrated, not feared. Economies are human-created institutions. The planet’s natural limits are not.
As such, let’s find ways to enhance the productivity of the people we already have, through improved health, nutrition, housing, education, employment, and safety nets. Let’s make it easier for parents of young children to participate in paid labor. Let’s make workplace modifications that allow people with disabilities and people who are elderly but still want to work to do so. And let’s stop worrying that the United States population may someday—even someday later in this century—begin to decline. Conservatives love to look back at the 1950s as the halcyon days; well guess how many people lived in the U.S. at the time of the 1950 Census? Just over 151 million—less than half today’s U.S. population.
Low fertility is a boon. It improves health and educational outcomes for children, it lessens the human burden on the environment, and it’s an indication of all the opportunities women now have in addition to motherhood. Let’s embrace it.