Baby Bust: America's Pandemic Birth Declines Steeper Than Initially Believed

However, some European countries with stronger social safety nets instead saw gains.

New data shows an even steeper drop in American birth rates than NBCLX first discovered last month, as new data – from the tenth and eleventh months of the pandemic – is made public.

January birth stats indicate America’s already-falling birth rate may see record plunges in early 2021, with three states that provide near-real-time birth data showing unprecedented drops from the same month one year earlier: Florida (down 9.3%), Arizona (down 8.7%), and Ohio (down 8.4%).

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Furthermore, new data from December 2020 shows Iowa and Oregon saw similar declines – 4.2% and 6.4%, respectively – from the same month one year earlier.  Those drops are in-line with the recently-updated December numbers for Florida (down 6.8%), Arizona (down 4.5%), and Ohio (down 6.0%).

NBCLX wrote in January about the substantial declines in birth rates during the pandemic, which sociologists largely attributed to economic uncertainty.  Experts also theorized social distancing’s effect on dating and casual sex could suppress birth rates in 2021.

“We are just beginning to see the effects of the pandemic on births and that they are this sizeable already suggests American individuals and families were worried enough about what the pandemic meant - medically, socially, and economically - that they altered their plans to have children,” said Dr. Karen Benjamin Guzzo, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University and the acting director of the school’s Center for Family and Demographic Research.  “People don't have children when they are worried about the future and don't feel as if they can afford to raise a child.”

But initial data suggests the uncertainty may be hitting America harder than some European countries with stronger social safety nets.

Some northern European countries, although under similar – or tighter – social distancing restrictions – have not seen the pandemic-inspired drops in birth rates that America has seen. 

Finland (up 2.3%), Denmark (up 0.3%), and the Netherlands (up 1.4%) all reported growth in their Dec. 2020 birth numbers, compared to the same month one year earlier.  Finland recently reported a January 2021 uptick as well (1.8%).  All of those increases are considered preliminary, and could be revised even higher when all births are tracked and the figures are finalized.

“These numbers are a bit surprising, but in a good way,” Guzzo said.  “That (birth rates) are not falling initially in places with more generous social safety nets…suggests income supports and decisive actions probably helped reduce uncertainty and worry – at least initially.”

Guzzo said the European upticks may not last, as the effects of the pandemic drag on.  But the initial figures suggest safety nets play a large role in providing stability and confidence in a crisis.  And because most of these policies were implemented long before the pandemic began, it’s evidence to her that “all policy is really family policy.”

“The pandemic has laid bare a lot of structural and social problems in the U.S., and we are having conversations we haven't had before, at least at the national level. The pandemic's uneven effects on employment (with far more women leaving the labor force), the childcare crisis, the student debt crisis – I don't think we would be having these conversations, let alone seeing actual policy efforts to address them, without the pandemic.”

With the United States already experiencing a decade-long decline in birth rates prior to the pandemic, Guzzo suggests lowering expectations about a robust post-COVID birth rate rebound in America.

“It might be a while before rates can recover from this.”