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How the 2020 coronavirus pandemic could decimate the birth rate in SC and the US

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Public health experts expect the birth rate to continue to decline following the coronavirus pandemic. File/Dreamstime

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives across the state of South Carolina and the rest of the country, public health experts are concerned about the far-reaching implications of the virus and how it may impact the size of our population for decades to come. 

Precisely, economists predict that the birth rate in the United States will drop precipitously during the wake of the pandemic. 

The U.S. birth rate has already been falling for decades, and especially so after the 2008 recession. Last year, the CDC announced that the number of births in the U.S. had fallen to its lowest point in 32 years. 

Robert Hartwig, a University of South Carolina economist, said the demographics of declining birth rates have been studied for many years.

"When there is an economic downturn, birth rates decline," he said. "This actual phenomenon has been documented to go back centuries."

In fact, he said, it is well documented that both recessions and pandemics typically result in lower birth rates. 

"What we’ve not experienced previously, at least not in this country, is the two occurring simultaneously," Hartwig said. "There’s an expectation that overall across the United States we will see between 300,000 and 500,000 fewer births in 2021."

In South Carolina, the Department of Health and Environmental Control reported that fewer than 57,000 infants were born in 2018, compared to a high of 63,077 in 2008. This decline has been measured even as the population of the state has grown substantially from 4.5 million in 2008 to more than 5 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics. 

These trends aren't unique to South Carolina. According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, "There is a strong association between the magnitude of fertility change in 2008 across states and key economic indicators, including changes in per capita income, housing prices and share of the working-age population that is employed across states."

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A lower birth rate over time presents troubling economic problems. Countries must maintain an economically viable ratio of working adults to elderly adults. 

Younger adults, Hartwig explained, largely drive the economy. They're entrepreneurs; they create jobs and drive economic demand. They also pay the lion's share of the country's taxes, including funding for safety net programs such as Medicare and Social Security. 

Japan, for example, he said, has been virtually in a state of "no growth" for 20 years. 

A lower birth rate may not impact South Carolina as severely as other states. Even if the number of births continue to decrease, Americans from other parts of the country continue to move into the state as the pandemic prompts people in large cities to move to smaller states. 

"States like South Carolina are going to be the beneficiary of that," Hartwig said. 

It remains unknown exactly how much the pandemic will impact the number of children born in South Carolina next year. 

Lesley Rathbun, a certified nurse midwife who owns Charleston Birth Place in Mount Pleasant, said she has not noticed a drop in patients seeking prenatal care this year, but she has fielded calls from several patients asking if it is safe to become pregnant during the pandemic. 

The number of hospital births in South Carolina fluctuates throughout the year.

Melanie "BZ" Giese, who runs the S.C. Birth Outcomes Initiative, explained that any impact the coronavirus has had on the number of births in the state won't be known until the next quarter of the year. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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