The Great Baby Bust: For Some Women, the Recession Means They Will Never Have a Child

The impact of hard economic times may permanently alter the course of life.

It makes sense to imagine that when economic times are tough, many folks would not be eager to have babies. After all, America is the most expensive place on Earth to give birth, and that's before you even start buying diapers. All told, it takes about a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child, and that doesn't include college.

But when the economy rebounds, does baby-making make a comeback for women who put motherhood off?

According to a large new study released Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the answer is no. For some U.S. women, living through a recession means that they will not have children. Ever.

The authors, who pored over birth records and census data to track the reproductive histories up to age 40 for every woman born in the U.S. from 1961 to 1970, project that among women who were in their early 20s in 2008, just as the Great Recession was sweeping through America, about 151,000 will not have a child by age 40. They estimate that the recession may mean that there will be at least half a million fewer children being born over the next 20 years.

Now, this doesn't mean that suddenly there won't be any more babies, because that's just one specific cohort, and half a million fewer births won't decimate the population. But Janet Currie, a health economist at Princeton University who worked on the study, says that the results show that hard economic times have "a pretty profound effect on some women's lives."

We knew from earlier studies that women are less likely to have babies when unemployment ticks up, and research has shown that the U.S. experienced a five-year drop in the number of babies born beginning in 2007. But what was not known is that women don't necessarily make up for lost time by having babies later.

John Casterline, an Ohio State University professor who studies childbearing patterns, said the long-term effect of the Great Recession on births is small but still remarkable.

And guess what really took off during the last recession? Condom sales. Sales of condoms leapt 22 percent from 2008 to 2009. Which shows that, contrary to what we imagine listening to biologically-illiterate Republican law-makers, a lot of Americans really do know where babies come from.


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Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.