Hurricanes and snowstorms — the kinds of events that keep people shut inside their homes — often produce baby boomlets, so you would think the coronavirus pandemic would be the mother of all booms.
Turns out it’s just the opposite.
In fact, the U.S. is on track for a 0.13 drop in the Total Fertility Rate, the biggest one-year decline since the 1970s, according to the latest estimates from the Social Security Administration, an agency that meticulously studies this sort of thing.
It all works out to fewer New Year’s babies. One estimate by demographers writing for the Brookings Institution said the baby bust could mean some 320,000 children who statistically would have likely been born in 2021, but who won’t because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, immigration rates have plummeted and mortality rates have risen, yet fewer people have become disabled as the virus has taken hold of Americans’ lives.
The looming question is how lasting those changes will be.
Social Security is projecting pretty a big bounceback. By the end of this decade it says immigration, productivity, births and mortality will have sprung back to their pre-pandemic projections.
But the Brookings scholars aren’t so sure, at least for births.
The way the virus is likely to play out, there will be large structural changes to the economy and a significant chunk of jobs not coming back, wrote Melissa S. Kearney, a nonresident Brookings fellow, and Phillip B. Levine, an economist at Wellesley College.
“The longer the duration of the income loss that workers expect, the more likely it is that delayed births will never happen,” they concluded.
The birth dearth comes after a decade that already saw what’s likely to be the slowest population growth in American history at 6.6%, according to William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings. That’s lower than even the Depression-afflicted 1930s.
And based on new Census Bureau data released in December, the year from July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020, is shaping up as the lowest since 1900, Mr. Frey said.
Population grew at just 0.35%, a rate lower than even the depths of the 1918 Spanish flu.
Mr. Frey said at least some of the pandemic is reflected in those census numbers — particularly the immigration and travel restrictions, which were imposed early on.
Lower births, meanwhile, will play out in the coming year.
Mr. Frey said it makes sense that fertility numbers would slip during the pandemic. While there’s often a baby boom following short-lived shut-in events such as major snowstorms, a more powerful trend is the drop in births amid economic downturns.
And that appears to have won out over the stay-at-home effect.
“People just don’t know what to expect next. When you plan anything, especially planning a birth, you have to figure out the economics of it. I think that’s something people are concerned about,” Mr. Frey said.
Early evidence from the pandemic bears that out.
The Kinsey Institute conducted a survey that found nearly half of adults reported “a decline in their sex life,” though about 20% reported an expansion of activities. Another study from Indiana University scholars also found nearly half of adults cutting down on sex, with the largest impact found in households that already had young children.
A paper for the Institute of Labor Economics took another approach, scanning Google trends to spot changes in searches for phrases such as “morning sickness” or a pregnancy test. They saw significant drops and said extrapolating from that data, they figure births from November through February will be 15% lower than normal.
That’s similar to the levels of the 1918 Spanish flu and the Great Depression.
Social Security is predicting a fertility bounceback. The agency says the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), a yardstick that applies current birth rates to project the average number of children a woman will have over her lifetime, will be 1.57 in 2021, down 0.13 from the 1.70 it projected before the pandemic.
And in 2022, it will be down 0.07 from the pre-pandemic projection, reaching 1.66.
But in each of the three years after that, the TFR will be 0.06 higher than the pre-pandemic estimates, suggesting a near-total catch-up, and by the end of this decade the TFR will actually be back on track, topping 1.9.
The Congressional Budget Office, meanwhile, dropped its fertility projections from 1.9 births per woman to 1.7 in 2020 and 1.6 in 2021. Combined with higher mortality and lower immigration, CBO cut its estimate of the U.S. population in 2050 from 389 million to 378 million.
Social Security, though, is assuming that immigration will recover and those who didn’t arrive in 2020 or 2021 will come in future years.
Steven A. Camarota, a demographer at the Center for Immigration Studies, said it’s too soon to know the answer to that question — and much will depend on the policies the government adopts.
“We’re going to see a much more permissive environment across the board and that’s going to cause immigration levels to rise,” he said.
Mr. Frey said if the economy and jobs picture improve, that also could draw more immigrants, boosting population.
The debate is more than academic.
Mr. Frey said an aging U.S. population and a declining percentage of people under age 18 will leave the country grappling with how to support more older folks with fewer workers.
“We’re in for many decades of much slower population growth than we’ve seen in the past few decades. Immigration is the magic bullet for making that higher,” he said.
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