Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, birthrates in America had been steadily falling since the 2007-2008 Great Recession. During 2020, as most of us stayed at home and lived with the uncertainty of this new virus, birthrates saw an even larger decline than expected.
But a new report from the Institute for Family Studies reveals a stark turnaround in the past four months: birthrates have returned to pre-COVID levels. Lyman Stone, research fellow for IFS, co-authored the report “Births are Back: Did Government Stimulus Fuel a Baby Boomlet?” and he joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss these encouraging findings.
“What we see during most sort of crisis events in most societies is that conceptions tend to fall,” shares Stone, “and as a result, births tend to fall nine months later.” This is what we saw post-Great Recession, and unfortunately, birth rates have yet to recover.
This is why recent trends are so surprising: our nation and world has experienced a crisis event, yet recent birth rates have returned to 2019, pre-COVID levels. Why? Stone speculates two potential reasons: first, “this shift to remote work—and especially people’s expectation that remote work was going to stick around for a while to come—probably eased people into a place where they felt comfortable having a child.”
The second reason is government support. “Family household income actually rose during COVID,” says Stone, “and that was because of stimulus checks, generous unemployment insurance, and expanded child tax credit.” Because of this rise in income, families that had been holding off on having a child due to financial reasons likely felt more comfortable.
“Higher fertility is an economic and social boon to society, and low fertility creates long-term challenges. … So, it’s encouraging that maybe COVID isn’t going to put us on a permanent lower trajectory.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Lyman Stone unpack his report on the recent “baby boomlet,” and share why higher fertility is so important to society.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As much of the world hunkered down in the midst of so many unknowns over the last year, many couples put their plans to have children on hold. What does this mean for the future, and are there any public policy implications? Today’s guest has been watching these trends closely and joins us today to discuss his new report, “Births are Back: Did Government Stimulus Fuel a Baby Boomlet?” Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and chief information officer of the consulting firm, Demographic Intelligence.
Lyman Stone, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
LYMAN STONE: Thank you, it’s good to be with you.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, tell us about this decline in U.S. conceptions and births, and is it still continuing today?
LYMAN STONE: We’ve seen a large decline in births in the first quarter of 2021 and at the end of 2020. This is a bigger decline than you would expect just from the pre-existing trends, suggesting that those early months of COVID were really not a good time to make a baby as far as a lot of Americans were concerned. It is a pretty sharp decline. And what we see during most sort of crisis events in most societies is that conceptions tend to fall, and as a result, births tend to fall nine months later. However, we have seen a bit of a turnaround in recent months. December, January, and February were pretty bad months for birth, but by April, May, and June, early indicators suggest that births kind of returned to normal levels much faster than anticipated. This is a really encouraging sign because after the 2007, 2008 recession, it took a very, very long time, years…in fact, it never really happened that births returned to prior levels; they kind of never re-normalized. The fact that we’re seeing a rapid normalization in birth rates after this particular event suggests that it’s a cause for optimism. And it’s strongly suggested that some societal responses to COVID may have been better than we give ourselves credit for.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: When you say we’re returning to normal, of course you mean pre-COVID levels. But fertility rates had already been declining in the U.S. and other countries in recent decades. So why do you suppose that is?
LYMAN STONE: So we’ve seen a declining fertility rate in really the last 15 years in particular for a variety of reasons. The Great Recession of course triggered a major economic shift. There was a very slow recovery and a recovery that didn’t really succeed in helping young people build assets very well. We didn’t really see any recovery in household wealth of younger households, at least as of 2019. So that certainly contributed to a durable decline in fertility. And this recovery that I’m talking about, it is just a recovery to 2019 levels; it’s not a returning to 2007. It’s not a “baby boom;” it’s just getting back to those already historically low 2019 birth rates. So, it’s encouraging that may be COVID isn’t going to put us on a permanently lower trajectory. But, we’re still not in a good place, both due to economic changes, wider social changes, changes in attitudes towards family and children, and a whole host of factors.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Speaking of the attitudes toward children and families, I’ve heard comments from people when they see a large family, suggesting that that’s not right, or that’s not moral. So where does that kind of attitude come from?
LYMAN STONE: Yeah. Family size prejudice is a significant issue and it does show up as something that some people are concerned about, and have real experiences with. So, where does this come from? Some of it, I have to say, is those of us who like a big family and have a lot of kids or want a lot of kids, we are adopting a family-norm that is very different from the culture we live in. And so it’s easy to feel discriminated against or to feel the prejudice of others, even if nothing untoward is intended. Car seat laws aren’t intended to discriminate against you, but they are a hassle. Our society is basically built for two kids. But then as you know, there is sort of another side of this as well: you do sometimes run into really conscious and overt hostility to large families. This comes from a variety of places. Sometimes it’s a sense that large families are a symbol of cultural backwardness, that it means that women are barefoot in the kitchen, uneducated and not having an opportunity in life. You get this sense that large families must necessarily be a sign of oppression and backwardness. Of course, we know that’s not true in a developed country context, that higher family size is mostly associated with women who report wanting more children. Their family size is not driven by oppression, but by fulfillment of that specific desire and ambition.
And the second place this now comes from is climate concerns and population concerns, that these big families are contributing to climate change. They’re not pulling their weight on this social project of fighting climate change, and they’re making life harder for all the rest of us. This is total bunk; large families are more carbon efficient than small families. And of course, having more kids does not increase your income level, and as a result, having more kids is not really going to increase your carbon footprint. Credible science-based advice on how to deal with climate change—like what we see from the intergovernmental panel on climate change—does not recommend any population related measures to combat climate change because they don’t work. They don’t help. They have nothing to do with actually tackling the real drivers of climate change.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned a lot of times when you’re talking about the increase in fertility rate, you say this is good news; it’s positive. Why, for those people who may not have followed this, why is it important that we have a strong birth rate? What does this do for us?
LYMAN STONE: There’s “What does this do for us?” and “What does this do for me?” So for me, I want a certain number of kids. Maybe there’s a little bit of wiggle room on it, but broadly I have an idea of the family I want to have. And most people have an idea of the family they want to have. And on average, most people say that they want two or three kids. Well right now the total fertility rate in the U.S. is only about 1.6 and change. Which means on average, people are going to have one or two kids, which means on average, people are going to be missing one child they wanted to have. What this does for us at the society level hardly even matters when you consider that the first problem is just that there’s a lot of people who want a certain family life that they’re just not going to get. So, the first thing it does is that we just have a lot more disappointment, unfulfilled hopes, and (as people age) loneliness and isolation in our society. That is, as long as fertility rates are below what people say they want, we’ve got a problem, no matter what the other social consequences may be.
However, there are other social consequences, particularly in a well-educated society. Low fertility rates are associated with less entrepreneurship, less technological innovation. They’re associated with lower rates of per capita economic growth; they’re associated with higher inequality, lower economic mobility in countries that have good health and education systems like the U.S. Higher fertility is an economic and social boon to society, and low fertility creates long-term challenges.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So talk about what some of those long-term challenges might be. You just gave us some of the positives of a growing fertility rate. What could some of the negatives be?
LYMAN STONE: Well, they’re kind of just the inverse of the positives, right? So, if higher fertility rates lead to say more economic dynamism in the form of, you know, more entrepreneurship, more innovation, well, lower fertility just has the opposite effect: lower economic dynamism. Using the real estate market is a nice example and say, well, what happens to real estate values when population is growing? On the whole, they go up. In a metro area that has growing population, real estate demand is strong and prices tend to rise. And so those of us with real estate wealth tend to do well. When population is falling though, what happens? Well, there’s less demand for houses, there’s fewer buyers for each seller, and prices tend to fall.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Your report is entitled, “Births are Back: Did Government Stimulus Fuel a Baby Boomlet?” So what’s the answer to that question?
LYMAN STONE: There’s kind of two big drivers, we think, of this return to normal fertility. The first one is that over the summer of 2020, many Americans already shifted to remote work, but as we got hit by a second wave in the summer of 2020 of COVID, a lot of people realized that COVID is going to be around for a long time. And a lot of employers began adopting more permanent remote-work plans. And a lot of employees started to realize, “Huh, I’m going to be doing remote work a long time.” And remote work we know from prior research promotes fertility. When people have better remote-work options, they’re more likely to have babies. So, this shift to remote work and especially people’s expectation that remote work was going to stick around for a while to come, probably eased people into a place where they felt comfortable having a child.
Now, the economic situation was very bad around then, but this gets to the second major driver, which is government support. That even though the economic time was bad, family household incomes actually rose during COVID, and that was because of stimulus checks, generous unemployment insurance, expanded child tax credit. These kinds of programs that effectively gave Americans massive per person financial payments gave them defacto paid maternity leave that made it so that families could kind of make the transition they might’ve wanted to make for a while. On the whole these two factors: more generous support for families—and of course it was for families because most aid was given on a per person basis—so more generous support for families; and then also the shift to remote work combined to really give people the confidence they needed to have a child.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Are there some government policies that you think we should be considering in light of what you’re seeing on the data trends?
LYMAN STONE: Absolutely. I think one thing is that we should be thinking about ways that we can facilitate this transition towards remote work. Can governments do something to, where practical and where economical, facilitate a faster shift? I just say faster because a lot of jobs are headed this way one way or another, right? To a considerable extent, what we’re really thinking about is not, “Can we make a job become remote? but “Can we make it remote in 2023 instead of 2027?
Accelerating the shift to remote work is an important thing, and then another is extending the generous child tax credit. Obviously, we might prefer some other specific program designs and there’s tweaking that could be done, but in general, maintaining generous, direct cash support for childbearing is an essential component of any serious policy to support American families. If you’re not supporting direct cash transfers to families on the basis of fertility, then you’re not really doing anything to support family and fertility.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time for this week but before we go, Lyman Stone, where can our listeners go to read your report and to learn more about your work?
LYMAN STONE: The report we’re discussing today is published at the Institute for Family Studies, where I’m a research fellow. And of course, you can always follow me on Twitter, where I tweet often prolifically on a variety of related and unrelated topics @lymanstoneky
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Lyman Stone, author of the new report: “Births are Back: Did Government Stimulus Fuel a Baby Boomlet?” thanks so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.