At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were endless memes, jokes, and projections about an unprecedented quarantine baby boom. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Healthcare providers said that abortion demand was higher than ever. The Guttmacher Institute reported that 34% of American women were “more careful” about contraceptive use in 2020. And according to data from 29 state health departments, December 2020 saw a 7.3% decrease in births. Phil Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist, told CBS News that this was the most drastic decline he’d noticed since 1964.
Concerns about the pandemic have definitely led many people to rethink their pregnancy plans — around one third of women said they now want fewer children, or they want to wait to have children, because of COVID. Data from the Guttmacher Institute showed that Black women, Hispanic women, and lower-income women were significantly more likely than white and higher-income women to report this change. It’s a statistic that makes sense: These are the same women more likely to be essential workers during the pandemic, and research shows that Black women are three times more likely to die of COVID than white men. But, much like the pandemic exacerbated many already-existing problems in America, the birth rate drop just speaks to a trend we’ve been seeing for years.
In 2018, U.S. birth rates decreased to the lowest level in 32 years. The average parent is also getting older and older. This can be attributed to several factors: A big one is that more women are in the workforce, and they either want to focus on their career instead of parenthood or reach certain goals first. We’re also, thankfully, starting to normalize the decision to be child-free. But many studies show that some of the most predominant reasons people aren’t having children (or are waiting to have children) are financial.
Over a year before COVID hit, the New York Times interviewed nearly 2,000 individuals who said they had or expected to have fewer children than they wanted. Of the sample, 64% said they were concerned about the costs of childcare; 49% said they were “worried about the economy.” These concerns weren’t unfounded. Even before the pandemic devastated the U.S. economy, it was harder than ever to afford parenthood. Millennials, who are now between 25 and 40 years old, have a disproportionate amount of student loan debt, and Gen Z is on track to have even more. Numbers show that, generation by generation, people are becoming less and less likely to outearn their parents.
All the while, the cost of having a child has reached a staggering high. In 1985, the average family spent $87 a week on childcare expenses, and by 2010, that number was up to $148. As of 2020, the average U.S. parent pays $4,500 out of pocket just to deliver a baby — and that’s assuming they have health insurance, which many people don’t. Over the course of 18 years, a median-income, two-parent family is likely to spend around $284,570 raising one child. It’s a major financial commitment, and as Cohen told Vox, “People make long-term decisions when they feel certain about the future, and they put off long-term decisions when they don’t.”
The past year has added new difficulties for new and hopeful parents. One woman previously told Refinery29 that she wanted to have a third child, but she’s struggled to find a new job after she was laid off last spring. As months went by, it felt more and more unlikely that she would be able to afford another child. “It doesn’t really feel like my choice that this delay is happening. It feels forced on me, and that’s frustrating,” said the woman, whose name was changed for privacy.
But COVID-19 isn’t the only reason people have delayed or decided against having kids, and the problem of affording parenthood won’t go away when we return to a so-called “normal.” The pandemic itself didn’t create these problems — it only worsened the stark disparities that were already there.