Despite expectations that stay-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to a baby boom, the birth rate took an unexpected downturn. New research, however, shows that the decline wasn’t equal across state lines. Some states, in fact, actually saw birth rates rise — and those states have a few things in common.
A research team from NYU Langone Health examined data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and found that states with the biggest drops in fertility rate during the first wave of the pandemic were more likely to be Democrat-dominated, have a larger non-white population, and practice more social distancing. In contrast, the states that experienced an increase in fertility rate were more likely to be Republican-leaning, have fewer nonwhite residents, and adhered less to social distancing.
In other words, it seems that states that took COVID more seriously — no matter the severity of the disease within the state — had a steeper decline in birth rates during the first wave. Additionally, these states that had a higher proportion of nonwhite residents may have faced a decline in birth rate because people of color were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic, which could have affected their plans to conceive, according to Scientific American.
During the pre-pandemic years of 2016 to 2019, the U.S. fertility rate was already dropping; it dropped by 10.6 average births per month per 100,000 women of reproductive age. But the birth rate dropped a lot more than that during the first wave of the pandemic: by 17.5 births per month per 100,000 women of reproductive age in early 2020. That’s more than the birth rate dropped after even the 2008 recession.
After the second wave, during the winter of 2020-2021, the birth rate was similar to what it was pre-pandemic; it dropped 9.2 births per month per 100,000 women of reproductive age.
“Our findings suggest that while the overall national fertility rate rebounded remarkably quickly after the initial COVID-19 wave, the initial declines by state were as polarized as the country as a whole,” said NYU Langone Health Department of Pediatrics research associate and study co-lead Sarah Adelman. The rebound in birth rates following the first wave is thought by researchers to be due to the introduction of viable vaccines and lower stringency social distancing protocols.
The birth rate changes, according to the study, were more closely aligned with the overall political ideology of the state than with the severity of COVID outbreaks within states. “These results suggest that changes in a state’s fertility rates were not driven by COVID-19 cases themselves but rather by existing social, economic, and political disparities,” said co-lead author Mia Charifson, a doctoral student in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone.
Some experts caution that the reasons behind the birth rate drop in some states and increase in others are essentially unknowable — did some people stop conceiving intentionally or as the result of stay-home orders? Were their finances impacted by the pandemic, and that affected their family planning?
Also, it’s worth noting that some U.S. states have a greater percentage of non-resident births than others due to their proximity to countries people will travel from to give birth in the U.S. In those states, the decrease in births may have been from a decrease in non-resident births and not necessarily a reflection of the U.S. birth rate declining.