Not only do disasters have little effect, if any, on birthrates, the coronavirus pandemic will probably discourage couples from having children, experts say.
Any time people are stuck at home for blizzards, shutdowns and blackouts, the speculation seems to start: Will there be a baby boom in nine months?
This time, with lockdown orders keeping millions of people inside to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the answer is clear, demographers say. Don't expect a lot of newborns in the next year.
That may disappoint those who are worried about the United States' birthrate, which has steadily declined since the Great Recession and put the country close to an overall population decline. In the short term, as the pandemic wrecks swaths of the economy, the coronavirus will probably give couples even more cause not to have children, experts said.
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"I really don't think they're saying, 'Oh, let's have a baby in the midst of the greatest epidemic that the country has faced in 100 years,'" said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.
The coronavirus outbreak will most likely compound some of the economic factors that have affected the US birthrate since the Great Recession, which from late 2007 to mid-2009 cost millions of people their jobs and homes, foundations for raising a family. Even after data showed the recession had ended, for many young people, stable jobs were hard to find and owning a home was a distant dream.
Now, after just a few weeks of the outbreak in the United States, nearly 10 million Americans have lost their jobs, with more losses expected.
"Many people in childbearing ages were already worried about their futures, and now they may face unemployment as well," said Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, a sociology professor at the University of California. "That kind of anxiety is not conducive to having a child."
In contrast, the original baby boom, between 1946 and 1964, took place in an era of post war euphoria and financial stability for many Americans. Couples married young, could afford homes and had children quickly. And it was not until 1960 that the federal government approved the first birth control pill.
The economy is not the only factor in the declining birthrate, said Alison Gemmill, a demographer at Johns Hopkins University, who ascribed it not to the recession as much as more women waiting longer to have children.
And she noted that practices around sex, marriage and raising a family have been changing for decades. Unintended and teenage pregnancies have decreased to their lowest rates in decades. Young people are getting married closer to 30, Census Bureau data shows. And nearly two-thirds of American women ages 15 to 49 use some form of contraception, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018.
"People like this idea that people are stuck inside, they're not going to have much to do," Gemmill said. "But people will use methods to prevent pregnancy. People that do want kids, I think they're going to postpone."
She also said that the coronavirus uncertainty wasn't limited to job security and personal finances: With doctors struggling to cope with coronavirus patients, access to natal care and hospitals could be limited. In New York, for instance, where infections have strained hospitals to extremes, some pregnant women are choosing to leave the state for areas less affected by the virus.
There has been anecdotal evidence and some research done on the effect of disasters on the birthrate. But Gemmill called it "kind of marginal" and a difficult subject to study because of how many factors contribute — even the seasons potentially play a role in conceptions (births are more common in the fall).
Researchers have, however, looked into the question off and on for decades — partly inspired by three New York Times articles about "a sharp increase in births" at several large hospitals in 1966, nine months after the blackout of 1965. In a paper published in 1970, however, sociologist J. Richard Udry found "no increase in births associated with the blackout."
The finding did little to stamp out future speculation about "stormy love" and "blizzard-induced" babies, seeming to bolster Udry's separate, less scientific conclusion that it was "evidently pleasing to many people to fantasy that when people are trapped by some immobilising event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation."
A later study, by two statisticians at Colorado State University and Northwestern University, said "the episode of the vanishing baby boom illustrates the creation and growth of a modern myth," one that snowballed into "one of those innumerable facts that everyone 'knows.'"
There has been some research that, in times of high stress, and even when mortality rises, "sometimes fertility also rises," Johnson-Hanks said. In the late 2000s, three researchers investigated whether hurricane warnings had any effect on the birthrate, in a study titled "The fertility effect of catastrophe: US hurricane births."
The study focused on storm advisories to residents along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and found a small but statistically significant effect, said Richard Evans, a senior lecturer in computational social science at the University of Chicago and one of the study's authors.
After low-level warnings, like tropical storm watches, "we found that for every 24 hours a county was under advisory, we saw a 2% uptick in births," Evans said. "On the flip side, for the very most severe hurricane warnings, we saw a statistically significant 2 per cent decrease."
He called the finding intuitive: "If you're running for your life, you're not making babies."
And he said that, even though the 2 per cent finding was statistically significant, it was very small.
"In a given county in a given month, that's one or two births per month," he said. "On average, across the whole United States, that would be maybe 6,000 extra births."
He said that, at most, the United States could see a blip of an increase in births in regions less affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and a small corresponding decrease in places most affected.
Johnson, the University of New Hampshire demographer, said that while he did not expect an increase in births in the next year, it could be possible in the next few years — if people manage to recover, both financially and from "the disorientation of the recession and the pandemic."
But he warned that the coronavirus was nothing like a blackout or a hurricane.
"The pandemic and its economic and social aftermath may well have long-term repercussions unlike any we have seen in the past," he said. "This has implications for fertility that are difficult to determine given we haven't had anything like this happen in a hundred years."
Written by: Alan Yuhas
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