Official birth data from the final months of 2020 were released last night from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics. The data confirm what many suspected and what we predicted back in June 2020 and further discussed in December 2020: nearly 40,000 “missing births” in the final month and a half of 2020, which would have otherwise been conceived in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were 53.9 births per 1,000 women (at an annualized rate) in the last quarter of 2020, in October, November, and December. That is substantially lower than the 57.6 annualized births per 1,000 women in the last quarter of 2019. However, not all of that decline can be attributed to the early stages of the pandemic. Birth rates have fallen steadily in the U.S. since 2007. Assuming births would have fallen between 2019 quarter 4 and 2020 quarter 4 at the same rate by which they fell between 2018 quarter 4 and 2019 quarter 4 (specifically, 2.3 percent), the observed drop between the final quarters of 2019 and 2020 incorporates a 4.3 percent “excess” decline. (Figure 1 plots quarterly birth rates for 2018, 2019, and 2020.) Since the effects of the pandemic in the U.S. really took hold in March 2020, only missing births from the second half of the quarter can reasonably be attributed to effects of the pandemic. The estimated COVID impact on births is thus twice as large – an excess decline of 8.6 percent.
We estimate the excess decline in births potentially attributable to the early stages of the COVID pandemic for women by age group. This exercise shows that the largest excess birth rate declines occurred for women between the age of 15 and 24 and above age 35. (Figure 2 plots the predicted COVID induced declines in birth rates by age group.) This would correspond with the largest number of averted births among those most likely to be in newer relationships (younger women) and those most likely to already have a child (older women). In the words of economists, births to younger and older women might be considered more “marginal,” whereas women and couples in their late 20s and early 30s are most likely to be committed to having a child during this time. Unfortunately, the birth data do not allow us to do more detailed subgroup analyses, such as looking by occupation or industry or employment status.
These data reflect birth responses to the very early days of the pandemic. Additional data that comes out over the following months will reveal how the path of the pandemic and associated recession played out for women and couples and their childbearing over the course of the year.