Yes, birth rates in Virginia have declined. But experts say regional differences tell a more complicated story.
In mid-April, Virginia hospitals noted what was then a surprising trend: birth-related visits had declined by about 3.3 percent over the past year, despite early speculation that pandemic stay-at-home orders could lead to a baby boom.
At the time, analysts with the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association weren’t sure if the trend would bear out statewide (one theory was that the decrease in hospital births may have been offset by a rise in at-home deliveries as midwives reported growing interest in their services). But less than a month later, a federal report found that the number of babies born across the U.S. declined by nearly 4 percent from 2019 to 2020 — a new record low. Virginia, it turns out, saw a similar 3 percent drop in births statewide, the largest single-year slump in more than a decade.
The trend, both nationally and statewide, has led to plenty of conjecture on how declining birth numbers could affect everything from the future labor force to government budgets to economic growth. “How Low Can America’s Birth Rate Go Before It’s A Problem?” mused one headline from the data analysis site FiveThirtyEight. The decline in Virginia could have “dramatic consequences for decades to come,” proclaimed another article from public radio station WVTF.
At least right now, though, it’s not clear that a lower birth rate is necessarily a bad thing, said Kristin Perkins, a sociology professor at Georgetown University. And digging into Virginia’s data shows that the declines haven’t been uniform across the state. Parsing out the reasons for demographic change can be complicated, but some local and regional trends might offer clues to why some Virginians are starting families — and where.
“No one has a clear answer, but I think part of it can be traced to a change in priorities,” said Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia. “And it is unbelievably complicated, but I think there is something to be learned from looking at certain regions of the state.”
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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