Contrary to initial predictions of a baby boom during the COVID-19 pandemic due to people spending more time at home, the opposite occurred—a decline in births. However, while the overall fertility rates in the United States decreased in the first year of the pandemic, recent research suggests that certain states experienced an increase in fertility rates.
A study published in Human Reproduction in April analyzed the changes in fertility rates across all 50 states and Washington, D.C. during the pandemic's first two waves. The research revealed that the U.S. fertility rate initially dropped by 17.5 births per month per 100,000 women of reproductive age after the first wave of the pandemic in early to mid-2020. However, it returned to its pre-pandemic decline rate following the second wave in the fall and winter of 2020.
States with a higher percentage of Democratic and nonwhite residents, as well as stricter social distancing measures, experienced greater declines in fertility. Conversely, states with more Republican-leaning populations, fewer nonwhite residents, and less stringent social distancing saw increases in fertility rates.
Historically, fertility rates have tended to decline during economic crises such as the stock market crash in 1929 and the recession in 2008. However, fertility rates in the U.S. had already been declining since before 2008. The researchers sought to understand the specific impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fertility rates, considering its social and economic dimensions.
Although previous studies had shown a decrease in fertility rates during the pandemic, they did not explore the variations across states. The recent study provided insights into these differences. The findings indicated that the strictness with which states approached the virus influenced their fertility rates. Democratic-leaning states and areas such as the Northeast, which were heavily affected by the initial COVID-19 wave, demonstrated greater declines in fertility.
Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, acknowledges the reasonable conclusion that political climate and pandemic response influenced fertility rates. However, he cautions that interpreting the findings can be complex. Births are not always planned, and a considerable percentage of births in the U.S. are not intentional. Additionally, some states have a significant number of babies born to individuals who reside outside the country but travel to the U.S. for childbirth. The decrease in fertility rates may partly be attributed to travel restrictions during the pandemic, preventing these individuals from entering the country.
Credit: Amanda Montañez; Sources: “State-Specific Fertility Rate Changes across the USA following the First Two Waves of COVID-19,” by Sarah Adelman et al., in Human Reproduction. Published online April 11, 2023 (expected and observed fertility data); 2020 Popular Vote Tracker, Cook Political Report (2020 election data)