Opinion | Covid gave America a surprise baby boom

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Covid-19 accomplished what would-be grandparents and government actuaries could not: It persuaded millennials to have kids.

Recently released data show that roughly, oh, nine months to a year after lockdowns started, a mini baby boom began. In 2021, for instance, roughly 51,000 more American babies were born than in 2020.

This was somewhat unexpected. For many years, the U.S. birthrate had been trending downward, and it usually fell more sharply when the economy was in trouble. Layoffs and uncertainty are not typically conditions that encourage people to expand their families.

Covid also obviously brought major disruptions to child care and schooling.

Early in the pandemic, the birthrate did fall, likely reflecting a temporary decline in immigration. But then: Lots of people in the United States suddenly decided to reproduce.

Why the baby bump? Policy provides one possible answer.

The federal government was more generous than in earlier bouts of economic hardship, offering expanded unemployment benefits, extra-large stimulus checks and a bigger child tax credit. American families had more financial security than they usually have during economic crises — in fact, they had more financial security than they usually have during good economies, too: Poverty levels after accounting for government programs reached record lows in 2020 and 2021.

That’s not the only variable that changed. Much has been written about how covid caused Americans to reevaluate their priorities. Perhaps a better way to think about this evolution is that Americans were allowed to reevaluate their priorities because, at least for some, working conditions had changed.

In a recent study, economists Martha J. Bailey, Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt broke down birth-trend data and found major differences by age, race and other demographics. There was a big socioeconomic divide, for example.

“Women with more education were the ones that were having a lot more children,” Bailey told me for a recent PBS NewsHour story on the pandemic baby bump. “Women with less than a college education, we not only saw their birthrates go down, but they’ve barely recovered to trend by the end of 2021.”

Why might that be? Women with bachelor’s degrees are much more likely to be employed in white-collar occupations that can go remote. As of mid-2021, roughly two-thirds of employed, college-educated younger women were working from home at least some of the time, according to a government survey; that’s more than double the share of their high-school-graduate counterparts. Flexible, commute-free work arrangements may have disproportionately given college grads the time and space to grow their families.

Many of the families I interviewed for the PBS NewsHour story said newfound workplace flexibility contributed to their decision to get pregnant (or to carry a surprise pregnancy to term). Now some of those same new parents, like many others across the country, are scrambling to renegotiate with employers who want everyone back in the office.

Whether work arrangements and child care, among other things, remain conducive to more child rearing in the years ahead will be critical to the health, wealth and happiness of the country.

Women are still having many fewer children than they themselves say they want: In surveys, women say the ideal number of children is, on average, 2.3. Even accounting for the recent baby boom, the expected number of children a woman will have over her lifetime is closer to 1.66.

For the economy to continue improving, the United States also needs a growing labor force. Given slower population growth, political challenges to immigration, and the depressed share of working-age Americans who are actively participating in the labor market, the pool of available workers is expected to shrink. Meanwhile, growth in productivity — the amount of stuff each worker can produce — has slowed as well.

This has consequences for both living standards and the solvency of major government programs.

Social Security and Medicare face long-term funding challenges. Even those dire forecasts for how soon they will run out of money are likely too optimistic, given their unrealistic assumptions about the size of the future labor force that will pay into these programs.

For example, the Social Security Administration assumes that the United States will soon return to nearly “replacement level” fertility rates (i.e., about two children per woman). In reality, we have undershot that level most years over the past several decades.

Unless Americans suddenly start producing a lot more children, or the United States admits a lot more immigrants, the government will either have to cut Social Security benefits or increase payroll taxes by more than current projections indicate, says University of Maryland economics professor Melissa Kearney.

So it’s great that we’ve seen a brief upward blip in baby making. It would be better if we came up with more permanent policy solutions that help that upward blip to continue — allowing families to have the number of children they want, and the economy to have the number of workers it needs.

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