Many thought that the government-imposed lockdowns of 2020 might result in a temporary reprieve of the United States’ falling birth rates. Unfortunately, it appears that this will not be the silver lining of COVID-19 after all.
Economists Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine believe that there will be 300,000 “missing births” due to the pandemic, based on statistical data available through January 2021. Writing in The New York Times, Kearney and Levine explain that January 2021 was the first month in which babies conceived during the lockdowns would have been born. Even after adjusting for the country’s increasing secularization and seasonal trends, they report that births fell by 7.2 percent in Florida and 10.5 percent in California.
Compare this with the United States as a whole from 2008-2018. In 2008 just under 4.25 million babies were born, while in 2018 births measured at 3.79 million, meaning that over 10 years, American fertility dropped by 10.8 percent. The 300,000 missing COVID births amount to an 8 percent decrease in the expected 2021 birth rate, in just one year.
Even if one does not consider human life to be an inherent good, the economic prospects of this baby bust are threatening. As Kearney and Levine note, the baby bust will result in a smaller work force, which “portends lower economic productivity and fewer workers to contribute to the tax base.” Additionally, the already stressed Social Security system will come under greater duress sooner, as the ratio of workers to retirees takes a tumble.
Liberals will likely point to the influx of illegal immigrants crossing the border as a way to make up for these economic problems. However, it is worth noting that the average hourly wage for an illegal immigrant is 42 percent lower than the wages of U.S.-born workers and legal immigrants. As a result, their contributions into the system will also be much lower.
For the small segment of people who remain unconcerned with both the moral and demographic implications on the one hand, and the economic impacts on the other, this dearth of births will be cause for celebration. The environmentalist movement will certainly be well pleased. After all, as Ian Dowbiggin notes in the February issue of Chronicles, environmentalism properly understood traces its roots back to a concern about overpopulation, as expressed most famously by Paul Ehrlich in his popular and extraordinarily erroneous book The Population Bomb. Dowbiggin writes:
Interestingly, Ehrlich’s best seller appeared at just about the time that, demographically speaking, the fertility of the American family had begun to decline. His advice to American couples to ‘stop at two’ sought to spread awareness of increasing pressures of overpopulation on the natural world. To Ehrlich, overpopulation was the main cause of poverty, pollution, disease, malnutrition, and social injustice.
American fertility cratered in the decade after oral contraceptives were first introduced in 1960, eight years prior to Ehrlich’s book, falling by more than a full child per woman by 1970. Today that number is even worse, falling from a birth rate of 3.58 children per woman in 1960 to 1.78 children in 2020—a reduction by more than half.
Ehrlich’s concern about overpopulation was misguided. Americans have become quite adept at providing all sorts of justifications for putting off having children or avoiding them entirely. In the vein of Ehrlich, children are bad for the environment, which is bad for social justice—not having them is “woke.” We can also justify avoiding children to fulfill our own selfish desires for more luxuries we don’t really need. Modern society provides more assistance by telling us that an unborn human life in his mother’s womb is not really a human being, but merely a disposable clump of cells.
Even prior to this COVID baby bust, Ehrlich’s predictions about the effects of “overpopulation” have been proven wrong time after time. Besides, if there is any sort of population bomb that has gone off in America or elsewhere in the Western world in the past 60 years, it is decidedly of the implosive variety, rather than the explosive.
When even left-wing think tank economists, such as Kearney and Levine of the Brookings Institution, are warning America of its impending demographic challenges, it is likely that the fallout of our selfishness will arrive sooner rather than later. It’s time for Americans to reevaluate their priorities.