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Experts say baby 'bust' from pandemic won't hit Canada as hard as U.S.
TORONTO -- Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America, jokes abounded about a potential “baby boom” resulting from lockdown measures that enabled couples to spend more time together.
However, experts say that we might be in for a baby “bust,” and see birth rates fall due in part to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Research published last week by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, predicted the U.S. could see 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year.
But could Canada see an equivalent drop in birth numbers? Or are the two countries -- and the way the pandemic has impacted them -- different enough that Canada will fare slightly better?
Economists Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine wrote in Brookings that economic factors have a lot more to do with babies than you might think.
Unemployment rates correlate with a decrease in birth rates, the report says, noting that “a one percentage-point increase in state-year unemployment rates is associated with a 0.9 to 2.2 percent decrease in birth rates” in the U.S.
The authors pointed out that an economic downturn that only lasts a short period of time is unlikely to create a huge change in birth rates. But an event such as COVID-19 that affects so many levels of the economy -- and has caused layoffs on such a grand scale -- is more likely to have a lasting impact.
“A deeper and longer lasting recession will then mean lower lifetime income for some people, which means that some women will not just delay births, but they will decide to have fewer children,” the report states.
The report analyzed the 2008 recession as well as the economic impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic, sometimes called the Spanish Flu, and found that both events correlated with a drop in births.
They added that stats from the National Center for Health Statistics showed that states that experienced a greater economic toll during the 2008 recession experienced a larger drop in births.
While there is only birth data for 21 states from 1918, large spikes in mortality rates from the epidemic correlated with lower spikes in birth rates, backdated nine months to approximate when conception would’ve occurred. When mortality soared, birth rates would fall by as much as 12.5 per cent.
“The drop in births that resulted from the Spanish Flu was likely due to the uncertainty and anxiety that a public health crisis can generate, which could affect people’s desire to give birth, and also biologically affect pregnancy and birth outcomes,” the report said. “That could be true during this crisis as well.”
The economy was going steady during 1918 in the U.S. due to the war effort. The report suggests this means that COVID-19 could have an even bigger impact on birth rates because of the double whammy of anxieties regarding health and finances.
The report acknowledged that a larger portion of deaths during the 1918 epidemic affected women who were in the ages where they were most likely to have kids, as opposed to COVID-19, which largely affects those who are older. The report also pointed out that their analysis of the connection between economic factors and birth rates does not take into account other factors such as better access to health insurance, education, contraceptives, birth control and abortion.
Canada and the U.S. have had similar rates of unemployment as a result of COVID-19: in May, Canada’s unemployment rate was 13.7 per cent, according to StatCan, while the U.S. had an unemployment rate of 13.3 per cent, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.
If unemployment rates had the exact same impact on Canada’s birth rates as the U.S., once we adjust for population, Canada could expect to see 30,000 to 50,000 less births next year.
But according to Elisabeth Gugl, a family economist and associate professor at the University of Victoria, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see numbers that in a dip in birth rates.
“I don’t anticipate a proportionate drop in birth rates in Canada,” she told CTVNews.ca over email. “The reason for that is twofold. One, people in Canada face different constraints than in the U.S. in thinking about whether to have a child [or] another child or not.
“Second, the pandemic is being managed differently in Canada than in the U.S. and so I don’t anticipate the same economic fallout from the pandemic as in the U.S.”
The U.S. has been criticized on the world stage for its handling of the pandemic, and has recently seen several states report soaring numbers of new cases after attempting to re-open prematurely. In Canada, many provinces have flattened the curve of the virus, and re-opening is being implemented with more caution than our neighbours south of the border.
Gugl pointed out that birth rates after the 2008 recession in Canada did not fall significantly, although the overall trend of birth rates in Canada has been on a slow decline since the ‘80s.
“Canada has fared better than the U.S. both in the 2008 recession and the current pandemic,” she said. “So even if economic down turns impact the birth rates in the U.S. and Canada in the same way, because we see less of a down turn (or a shorter down turn), we should also expect less of a reaction in terms of the birth rate.”
She also pointed out that while economic reasoning is a huge factor in planning a family, there are different financial considerations for a Canadian family as opposed to an American one.
“Private vs. public costs of raising children are distributed differently in Canada and the U.S., because Canada has better public services,” Gugl said. “Health care is public, we have better parental leave provisions, our public schools are by and large of high quality, and tuition for post-secondary education is lower.”
However, because families in Canada are slightly more likely than in the U.S. to have both parents as dual-earners, according to Gugl -- and the gender wage gap is slightly narrower in Canada than in the U.S. -- “then having a child can be quite costly in terms of the earnings the couple forgoes if one of them takes time off to take care of the child,” something economists call the “opportunity cost of parental time.”
It’s not that having children is necessarily cheaper in Canada, but that the considerations are different.
A baby bust is still likely coming in the next year, according to both Gugl and Tom McCormack, a business economist from Metro Economics in Burlington, Ont., who spoke to CTV News in April.
“I don't think in this world right now people are going to be feeling too good about bringing kids into it,” McCormack said.
But Canada’s population as a whole will likely be more affected by the way COVID-19 has impacted immigration than by the coming decline in births, Gugl said.
“Canada relies heavily on immigrants to keep its population growing,” she pointed out, echoing earlier concerns raised by McCormack.
"You're not going to get as many people moving to Canada or moving anywhere as you normally would,” he said in April. “So the population's going to suffer in the short term.”