Some are blaming the pandemic baby bust—but there's more at play here.
The U.S. birth and fertility rates hit record lows in 2020, according to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both the number of births and total fertility rates declined by 4%, falling for the sixth consecutive year to the lowest levels since 1979.
2020's birth rate decline is the largest single-year decrease in nearly 50 years.
Many are wondering if the pandemic is responsible for the sharp decline. Would prospective parents still want to bring a child into a world with COVID-19?
It is likely that the pandemic discouraged some adults from growing their families. In our 2021 State of Motherhood survey, we found that nearly one in five women said the pandemic impacted their family planning, with 13% saying they are waiting for the pandemic to resolve before having more children and 6% saying they are no longer planning to conceive or adopt.
A report from the National Center for Health Statistics found that the largest declines in birth rates in 2020 came at the tail end of the year. Some experts say that could be a sign that prospective parents didn't want to bring a baby into the world with the pandemic raging.
But here's the thing: this is the continuation of a six-year nationwide trend. Birth rates were down even in January 2020—well before the pandemic could have impacted family planning. It's just too simplistic to attribute to COVID-19 alone.
"The recent decline in birth rates reflects both a longer-term downward trend in birth rates that was apparent prior to the pandemic and pandemic-related reduction," Lorna Thorpe, director of epidemiology at the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, said in an interview with Reuters.
We've also seen a considerable drop in births to teen mothers. This year, births to 15- to 17-year-olds fell by 6% and to 18- to 19-yea-olds fell by 7%, both hitting record lows. Birth rates for 15- to 19-year-olds have fallen almost every year since 1991.
Financial insecurity has also been cited as a reason for the drop in birth rates.
"I feel like anyone bemoaning the declining birth rate in the U.S. doesn't understand that between student loans, childcare, and a mortgage (if you're lucky), many families are paying basically three mortgages every single month," tweeted Sara Lang Gifford, a social media strategist.
"I had a kid in the pandemic and while wonderful, it is *hard,*" tweeted writer Lizzie O'Leary. "Parents are already facing huge costs: healthcare, childcare, just raising and feeding a human. Covid made it harder. Who can blame people for not wanting to bring a kid into this environment?"
According to data from the CDC, birth rates vary by region, too. Large urban counties that have gained significant jobs in the past decade have seen birth rates fall dramatically, especially when compared to smaller rural counties that haven't seem the same economic recovery. Fertility is falling faster in places where prospective parents have more job prospects.
A recent report from the New York Times examined the nation's falling birth rates. "Researchers cannot say for sure if education is a cause of the fertility decline, but there appears to be some connection. What is clear is that women are far more educated than they were in past generations, even since the Great Recession in 2008," says the report. "Women's graduation rates are now rising faster than men's. One-third of women in their 20s had a college degree in 2019, up from one-quarter in 2007."
Again, there seems to be a link between prospective parents and mothers having greater access to education and employment opportunities and a decrease in fertility.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believes we also need to evaluate gender roles in family and work dynamics.
"We can't talk about declining American birth rates without discussing the persistent problem of working women shouldering more than their fair share of child care," she tweeted. Clinton recently appeared on the podcast, Next Question with Katie Couric, to discuss the continuing struggle for women's equality, both at home and in the workplace.
We know all these issues are important and impact mothers' lives every day. Our State of Motherhood survey proves that.
We learned that 93% of mothers feel burned out, at least occasionally. They don't feel supported by their partners. Very few (4%) say their partner takes the primary caregiver role when it comes to their children or even shares responsibilities equally (10%).
Just about half (48%) of working mothers have considered leaving the workforce because of the cost of childcare. This holds true across mothers of all races and ethnicities and is especially high (59%) among mothers that work part-time.
31% of mothers say they are "always" or "often" under financial stress or hardship to pay for childcare, with another 30% say they "sometimes" feel financial stress around paying for childcare. That means two-thirds of all mothers are worried about how to pay for childcare, at least sometimes.
Nearly all mothers (92%) want legislation to help support childcare and parental leave. 74% of mothers also support free, universal pre-k.
Universal childcare. Paid parental leave. Support at home. The rising costs of education and healthcare. All of these issues are linked—and all are weighing on the minds of women who are considering starting or growing their families.
The pandemic didn't start the nationwide birth rate decline. It just exacerbated it. We also know that this is not a uniquely American problem: birth rates are falling worldwide. Clearly, there's more at play than just the pandemic.
Some experts argue that we need better family policies in America to increase birth rates. Passing paid leave and universal childcare policies may encourage hesitant adults to have children.
We argue that we just need better family policies—period. These critical policies shouldn't be passed to convince adults to have more children. They should be passed because it's the right thing to do for American families.
So what can we do? Let's start by taking care of families now. We need comprehensive, paid leave policies. We need universal childcare. We need more support at home. We need accessible education and healthcare. Let's focus on passing these policies—not as an incentive for future generations, but to help today's families thrive.
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