by Mary Szoch
May 10, 2021
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new data showing the American birth rate in 2020 fell to its lowest point in history, continuing the general trend that began in 1971 of American birthrates falling below the replacement level. The Brookings Institute has predicted that in 2021, Americans should expect 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births, a 12-14 percent decline from 2020.
The social and economic impact of the rapidly falling birthrate cannot be overstated. Fewer children means rising loneliness, fewer consumers, isolation in old age, a dwindling economy, and overall, less happiness. Americans recognize this and actually want more children. Forty-one percent of Americans say three or more children is ideal, while just 1 percent say zero, but in reality, the fertility rate for American women is just 1.7.
Around the world, countries like China, Japan, Germany, Spain, and Italy are facing an even more drastic trend with experts predicting as many as 23 countries will find their population has halved by 2100.
Many blame the COVID-19 pandemic for the dramatic decline in births, arguing the 14 percent decline predicted in America for 2021 is the result of the pandemic. This decline is much steeper than countries have seen before, but it would be naïve to think that this decline is more than an exaggerated data point in a general trend.
Currently, government leaders around the world are working to reverse this trend. China expanded their one-child policy to a two-child policy in hopes of increasing the population, but it has failed to do so. Various countries have implemented maternity leave and childcare policies but failed to find a panacea. Without an accurate diagnosis of the problem, efforts to correct it will continue to flounder.
Without a doubt—the conditions created under the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a dramatic decline in births. Throughout American history, during times of economic decline, the fertility rate has also dropped. Fewer births in 2020 are attributed to the instability caused by COVID-19. But an examination of what happened during the lockdowns across the country points to another, major cause.
During the pandemic, in the name of keeping people safe, weddings were postponed, couples decided not to have children, students did not go to school, loved ones died alone, ICU patients were denied the presence of a priest, multiple churches were ordered to close or limit attendance—even at Christmas. Of course, in many cases, precautions were prudent and, in some cases, necessary. Still, the message “Be afraid of yourself and be afraid of others. Do not make any commitments or take any risks—even for the sake of love (especially not love of God)” was incredibly damaging.
Sadly, this message was just a magnified version of what society has been preaching for years: “Be afraid. Don’t commit. Don’t take any risks—even for the sake of love.”
Today, the world is one where technology allows us to cancel plans even minutes before they were scheduled; where it is possible to find out everything about a person before going on a first date; where instead of committing to marriage, the norm is to “try things out” by moving in together; where commitment to moral principles has been replaced by a “commitment” to whatever makes people feel good; and where instead of practicing a religion, people identify as “spiritual” but not religious or as “nothing.”
The inability to commit points to an inability to love, which requires commitment, vulnerability, and risk taking. Ultimately, the inability to love indicates a rejection of God who is love. As the birthrate has declined in the United States, so has Christianity. In fact, among Millennials, four in 10 people identify as religious “nones.” It is not surprising that the rejection of God and the rejection of the self-sacrificial love required to fall in love, get married, and bring a child into the world go hand in hand.
The pandemic and the restrictions implemented as a result proved many things—human beings need social interaction; in general, people follow rules; work is a huge source of self-esteem; fear motivates drastic actions; and most importantly, spending time with God is essential for human flourishing.
Certainly, instability caused by COVID-19 impacted the birthrate, but COVID-19 did not cause the instability—it simply magnified a problem that already existed. The antidote to this instability is a return to God. He is the only being not surprised by anything in the future. In Him is ultimate stability—and with that, the courage to fall in love, get married, and have children.