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COVID Baby Bust Has Economic Consequences

Couple walking at sunset
Charlie Riedel
/
AP
When most of the U.S. went into lockdown in 2020, some speculated that confining couples to their homes with little to entertain themselves would lead to a lot of baby-making. But the statistics suggest the opposite happened.

Fewer women have been having babies since the pandemic began, at least in a traditional hospital setting.

An economist says the COVID-19 baby bust isn't just a problem for hospitals. It's eventually going to be a problem for all of us.

Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal handles the biggest share of baby deliveries in McLean County. In the first part of 2020, births were on the rise. But in early 2021, the trend reversed. Carle BroMenn delivered 13% fewer babies in January through April compared to the first four months of last year. So much for that well-worn line about stay-at-home orders leading to more pregnancies. Those instances are anecdotal.

Nona Fulk
GREG LINDER
Dr. Nona Fulk

“I have people close to me who did get pregnant during the pandemic,” said Dr. Nona Fulk, chair of the OBYGN department at Carle BroMenn. “That was interesting and fun. It’s our business, so obviously we want to see those patients pregnant.”

Fulk said she understands why some couples might not be ready to start or grow their family during a global pandemic.

“When these big, worldwide events occur, like 9/11 and things like that, people really think about do we want to bring a child into this world? Maybe some of that was going through their heads.”

Fulk said Carle BroMenn also helped keep unwanted pregnancies down during the pandemic by making sure women had access to contraception even when access to doctors' offices was limited early in the pandemic.

OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington saw a slight uptick in baby deliveries in early 2021, but deliveries have been stable year to year. Lisa Emm heads the OBGYN department at OSF St. Joseph. She suspects COVID shutdowns and all the economic uncertainty also kept more couples for having more kids.

“What’s going to happen in the next year or two years? How is their economic status going to be, on a personal level or globally?” Emm asked.

Economic toll

But declining birthrates were not just a consequence of COVID. Illinois Wesleyan University economist Mike Seeborg said the trend has been ongoing for decades. He said that will cause more economic concerns for decades to come.

Mike Seeborg
Illinois Wesleyan University
Mike Seeborg

“These people who would have been born 20 years from now will not be entering the work force,” Seeborg said. “So the decline in the birth rate means a decline in the working-age population.”

Seeborg said the U.S. is on the verge of a financial cliff, noting programs including Social Security and Medicaid need people paying into them, especially as people live longer. Not only are births down, the immigrant population also has declined. Seeborg said the U.S. will need to come up with solutions to keep those entitlement programs solvent.

“We lag behind much of the advanced industrial world in regard to family-friendly policies that encourage families to have children,” he continued. “I think we are going to have to really consider that.”

Seeborg proposes expanded child care assistance as one option. Seeborg noted the pandemic has been especially hard on women,many of whom have had to give up work or reduce hours to help their children with remote learning.

Birth center boom

While Bloomington-Normal's two hospitals saw a 6% drop in deliveries from early 2020 to this year, a birthing center in Bloomington did see a baby boom.

Stephanie Harper is administrator of the Birth Center of Bloomington-Normal. The center saw a nearly 60% increase in deliveries from early 2020 to this year. “Out-of-hospital births are gradually increasing, and I think the pandemic will only continue to increase that number,” Harper said.

The Birth Center only handles low-risk pregnancies.

Harper said birth centers are growing across the country as more people seek the help of a midwife and the calmer setting a standalone birth center offers.

“We have some pretty poor outcomes for moms and babies as a nation,” Harper said. “I think moms are looking at options, especially when you look at the disparities for Black women.”

Emm at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center said hospitals also are more restrictive to visitors and that likely prompted more families to choose a birth center.

“Labor delivery units are more of a closed unit where we allow the women and their one partner, but we don’t allow more families coming in and I think that’s steered people away, or just people being nervous about going into a hospital and could they get COVID at the hospital,” she said.

Emm doesn't mind that more expectant moms are turning away from hospitals for delivery. She said it's good that women have options and can birth where they feel most comfortable.

The Center for Disease Control says birth rates in the U.S. dropped 4% last year, to their lowest level since 1979. Teen pregnancies fell 8% last year.

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