Births rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in Massachusetts, rising 4 percent in 2021 after plummeting by same margin in 2020, according to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
More than 69,100 babies were born in Massachusetts last year, about 2,700 more than in 2020, the data shows. Roughly 69,100 babies were born in 2019, as well.
“In some sense, it was 2020 that was the odd year,” said Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College who has studied the impact of the pandemic on U.S. birth rates. “2021 just put us back on the same course we were on before.”
All six states in New England saw births rebound from 2020 to 2021. Connecticut and New Hampshire saw the steepest increases in births in the nation at 7 percent, from about 33,500 to 35,600 in Conn., and roughly 11,800 to 12,600 in N.H. Births in Vermont jumped 5 percent, from approximately 5,100 to 5,400, the agency reported.
Maine and Rhode Island also observed a 4 percent jump in births — along with Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota and Tennessee. In Rhode Island, the number of babies born increased from about 10,100 in 2020 to 10,500 in 2021.
In Connecticut and New Hampshire, births in 2021 far outpaced births in 2019, rising roughly 4 and 7 percent, respectively, over the two-year period. (The birth rate in New Hampshire was unchanged between 2019 and 2020.)
Births ticked up across the U.S. last year, increasing 1 percent to nearly 3.7 million, following 15 years of steady decline. The slight rise in the country’s birth rate marks the first increase in births since 2014. But the number of babies born nationwide in 2021 was still 2 percent lower than in 2019. Births hit a record low in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, falling 4 percent from the previous year.
The beginning of the pandemic prompted a reduction in conception rates as people dealt with job insecurity and financial hardship, Levine said. The public health crisis also played role: according to his own analysis of the 2020 “baby bust,” states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut that observed high COVID-19 caseloads at the onset of the pandemic also experienced the largest relative declines in births.
“All of the states in which the initial impact of the pandemic was the worst are the ones where birth fell the most, including New England,” Levine said. “Once you got past that, people started adjusting their lives in the COVID world and conception started rising again.”
The U.S. birth rate has plummeted nearly 20 percent since 2007, reaching new lows almost every year. The beginning of this decline was partly due to the Great Recession, Levine said, but economic straits alone do not explain why birth rates have continued to drop.
“Birth rates always fall during recessions and that one was no different. But it didn’t bounce back,” Levine said. “Clearly, there was something going on around that time that changed.”
Several plausible theories have been offered to explain the phenomenon, including the rising costs of child care and housing, high student loan debt, and increased opportunities for women in workplace. But there’s little evidence, backed by data, to support these conclusions, Levine said.
Women are not only delaying childbirth, he noted, they’re having fewer children over all. The total fertility rate in the U.S. — an estimate of the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime — was 1.66 births in 2021. That’s down from 2.12 in 2007, which the last time the U.S. had replacement-level fertility, or enough births per woman to maintain the country’s population size.
Levine believes this decline can be attributed to shifts in priorities among women and their partners. Expectations for parents are much higher than they were 15 years ago, he said, and balancing family and work is more difficult for parents with more children.
“These are long-term ... broader social changes that affect women,” Levine said, “and that leads them and their partners to choose to have fewer kids.”