Sarah Gonzalez: I'm Sarah Gonzalez in for Tanzina Vega this week and you're listening to The Takeaway. What some expected to be a COVID-19 baby boom is now being considered a baby bust. Birth rates have dropped since states across the US locked down last March. According to new data from the federal government, the birth rate declined by 4% in 2020, that is the sixth year in a row where the birth rate has decreased. Other countries like China and Italy have also seen birth rates drop this year. It's not just birth rates, fertility rates, or the number of children a person is expected to birth during their childbearing years are also on the downturn.
What's really driving this and what does it mean both in the short and long-term? For that and more we're joined by Kerri Raissian an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut. Kerri, welcome to the show.
Kerri Raissian: Hi, thank you for having me.
Sarah Gonzalez: Was the decline in the US birth rate expected particularly this past year, or was it still surprising?
Kerri Raissian: I think for me, at least, and for many economists and demographers, this was a pretty expected decline. As you mentioned, this is our sixth straight year of declining birth rates. There was no reason to think that things were going to going to change that trajectory. In fact, what we saw was an acceleration of those birth rate declines, particularly in the last part of 2020 and that's not surprising given the time demands that families faced in the pandemic months.
Sarah Gonzalez: What is the connection to the pandemic here?
Kerri Raissian: Kids are something that take a substantial amount of time and money on behalf of their parents. We have to invest a lot of time and money into kids. When those two things become scarce or when there's uncertainty or when families don't feel like they can appropriately invest in their children and especially when we create trade-offs between working and having children in our society, it's just not surprising, I think, to a lot of people that women, in particular, chose to have fewer children both in the proceeding years and then, especially in, like I said, the latter part of 2020.
Sarah Gonzalez: When women right in the thick of COVID were losing their jobs more than men, were having to leave their jobs to take care of their children when schools and childcare closed, it's probably more reason for women to say like, "Not the right time to have kids." right?
Kerri Raissian: That's exactly right. Not only are birth rates and total fertility rates down, women's labor force participation is also at historic lows. Mothers have disproportionately felt the caregiving strain in this pandemic, but also all the time. A lot of the caregiving burden has fallen to mothers and to women and women have seen this and millennials have seen this. Women can pay attention to patterns and make decisions that perhaps this isn't a trade-off that they're willing to make.
Sarah Gonzalez: How should we think about declining birth rates in the United States and other countries given that globally there's overpopulation?
Sarah Gonzalez: I think obviously population is something that countries have to consider and think about in multiple ways, but we also have to think about and acknowledge that children are one source of future worker. They're a future labor force. They're also just future society. Not to get too cheesy, but the children are our future in lots of ways. If what we have set ourselves up for is an aging society and children are not then there to repopulate the labor force, then that can present problems for economies, for growth of economy.
We may not have people's talents to edge our society on, but more broadly many social service programs, social security being the keynote program relies on future workers and particularly their wages to fund that program. There may be solvency issues to think about for federal programs if we don't have future children, but we do have an aging society. By that, I mean we have retirees.
Sarah Gonzalez: I normally work at an economics podcast and one way to think about people being born is that people are not just people, they are consumers and workers and taxpayers. If you don't have enough people in your city or your country that causes all kinds of problems like what you mentioned, less babies, what would the effect of that be on social security, for example?
Kerri Raissian: Exactly. It could create a problem where that program isn't solvent. I want to be clear that future children born to American women are not the only way to think about that program solvency. There are certainly other ways. There are economic benefits to immigration, for example. Then of course there are just other funding mechanisms that we can think about, but under our current funding mechanism, this does present a challenge for those kinds of programs moving forward.
Sarah Gonzalez: I'm wondering if the current decline is a matter of people just choosing to delay having children down the line, not necessarily forego having children do you know?
Kerri Raissian: This is the big question for demographers and something that we've been interested in for a long time. Some of these falling birth rates, for example, are falling birth rates to teenagers. The teen birth rate for 15 to 19-year-olds, for example, has fallen a lot in this year, but also since the 1990s where it peaked, it's fallen 75%. I don't think anyone would like to change that. I think as a society, we certainly want teen women waiting to have children. The question is, do they make them up later in their fertility years?
A lot of the answer we're starting to really get that data. It doesn't look like women who are delaying their children in their 30s are then making them up in there when they're 35 or so. We're seeing things like just overall childlessness raise. There are more women not having any children, which is certainly indicative of women just choosing not to have children at all. The families are becoming smaller and some women are choosing to not be mothers at all.
Sarah Gonzalez: Kerri Raissian is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut. Kerri, thank you for joining us.
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