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Virginia's Falling Birth Rate and What it Means for the Future

AP Photo / Rick Bowmer

Birth rates are declining in Virginia, a trend that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. That could have dramatic consequences for decades to come.

Birth rates always fall during times of economic crisis. It happened during the Great Depression and then again during the Great Recession. But the Baby Boom that happened after World War II didn’t repeat itself when the economy recovered after the recession of 2008.

"Births in Virginia are lower now, the lowest they've been since the late 1990’s, and Virginia's population was 25% smaller then. So we've seen a fairly substantial decline in births," says Hamilton Lombard at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

"Millennials are right in the prime age to have children, and they're not having nearly as many as even Generation X has," he explains. "So I think that is a good explanation early on. The point we're at now, millennials are postponing children or just not having as many."

Kenneth Johnson at the University of New Hampshire says those millennials have the power to shape the future.

"So now the question is are the women who didn't have children during the Great Recession and its aftermath, are they going to have them or not? And, of course, after the Great Recession, things finally were coming back to normal and then COVID hits and yet another reason why people might be concerned about having children," says Johnson.

Johnson looked at birth rates in all the states and found that 20 states now have more deaths than births for the first time in history. Virginia is not one of those states, at least not yet.

"Virginia continued to have more births than deaths, but the gap between the number of births and the number of deaths in Virginia dropped," he says. "So although there was still more births than deaths, the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths was essentially cut in half between 2019 and 2020."

Looking into the future, that's a trend that could have lasting consequences. Beth Jarosz at the Population Reference Bureau says it could have a cascading effect.

"15 years from now, there will be fewer people entering high school. 20 years from now, there will be fewer people entering the labor force. 30 years from now there will be fewer people who are forming families and having children," explains Jarosz. "And so that does have really important implications for everything from transportation infrastructure to the types of facilities we need, whether it's schools or health care facilities."

At first blush, that’s a trend that might be frightening for things like the solvency of Social Security. But Jarosz says there's also a potential upside to declining birth rates.

"As people have fewer children, the resources that are available for those children increases. Kids get more attention from their parents," she says. "They get better attention at school, and there can be positive outcomes from that."

The number of births in Virginia declined more than 3% from 2019 to 2020. And, researchers will be closely following the birth rate coming out of the pandemic to get a sense of whether the birth rate will continue to drop or pick up after the crisis is over.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.