US birth, fertility rates plunge amid Covid-19 pandemic

Just over 3.6 million babies were born in the US in 2020, down four per cent from 2019, data shows.
Just over 3.6 million babies were born in the US in 2020, down four per cent from 2019, data shows.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The Covid-19 pandemic caused birth and fertility rates in the United States to plunge in 2020, and much of 2021 is not expected to be different.

The decline, however, is not anomalous but rather a downturn in a steady decline in birth rates since 2007.

Just over 3.6 million babies were born in the US in 2020, down 4 per cent from 2019, data shows.

Birth rates declined for women across all races and in all age groups, with the steepest decline among those aged 15 to 19.

"There were 53.9 births per 1,000 women (at an annualised rate) in the last quarter of 2020," the Brookings Institution wrote in a paper in May. "That is substantially lower than the 57.6 annualised births per 1,000 women in the last quarter of 2019."

The dip in births is not unexpected. Births had gone down previously in times of economic distress and uncertainty.

Rather, it is a downturn in a larger trend of a steady decline in birth rates in the US - long visible in Asian countries like Japan and South Korea - driven by multiple factors but prominently women's higher levels of education, autonomy and affluence, and having their first child later .

The excess decline emerged in the last quarter of 2020 and persisted through most of this year.

In May, Pew Research wrote: "Some estimate that there will be close to 300,000 fewer births in the US in 2021 as a result of the outbreak.

"These conjectures are already coming to fruition based on provisional monthly estimates. Overall, the US birth rate dropped 4 per cent in 2020 based on provisional data, and a look at December 2020 - the month when babies conceived at the beginning of the pandemic would have been born - shows an 8 per cent decline from the previous December."

Professor Mauro Guillen, incoming dean at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School, told The Straits Times: "Young couples are postponing (having babies)."

He added: "Eventually, they will have the baby that they want to have. But even just the mere postponement brings down the birth rate."

The pandemic plunge has been driven, analysts say, primarily by uncertainty over the future. This includes economic anxiety on the back of widespread job losses exacerbating the worry about not being able to afford children.

Student debt has more than doubled over the last two decades; at the end of 2020, about 43 million US borrowers owed nearly US$1.6 trillion (S$2.16 trillion) in federal student loans, the Council on Foreign Relations said in an April 2021 backgrounder.

And raising a child to age 18 in America costs parents an average of US$230,000, a Merrill Lynch report in 2020 concluded.

"Most of what you're seeing in the 2020 numbers is the continuation of a decline in births," associate professor of sociology Christine Percheski at Northwestern University told ST.

"That reflects a few different trends: a drop in teen births happening since about 2008, and a change in the age when women have their first birth - an increasing age at first birth that has been happening for a while. Part of the 2020 story is about this longer-term, ongoing trend."

She said: "I do expect to see a bigger drop in births in 2021 because of the pandemic. The question about what will happen in 2021 and how fast things will rebound partly is going to depend on what happens with the virus, which is hard to predict."

Prof Percheski added: "I think it's likely, let's say by 2022 or 2023, that the pandemic-specific drop will see a rebound. But this longer-term trend of a drop, of fewer teen births and older age at first birth - I don't really expect that to change dramatically (or) quickly."

The birth rate decline, and the pandemic-induced plunge, would normally add up to an ageing population some time in the future. But there is one factor at play in the US that is not an issue in many other countries - immigration.

It is certainly subject to both US policy, as well as conditions in the countries where the immigrants are from. But the US is built on immigration, and while immigration is an increasingly hot potato politically, the current administration is open to more of it.

"It's hard to predict the future, of course, but given the kind of declines we're seeing and that we're likely to see, I don't think we should be worried about an ageing population," said Prof Percheski.

Prof Guillen sometimes jokes that the US also has a "one-child policy", referring to China's decades-long population control policy that was recently abolished.

"It's called college education for women," he told ST. "At the end of the day, it all depends on the women. If you give women the opportunity to educate themselves, they will take it. And in the United States right now, there are more women in college than men."

He added: "Once you have women accessing jobs and education, then there's nothing you can do. They're not going to have as many babies as their mothers, or as their grandmothers. It's as simple as that."