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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Iowa couples delivered the fewest babies last year since the state began keeping track in 1915 — a disturbing decline brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic that also pushed deaths to a yearly high.
According to preliminary numbers issued by the state Department of Public Health, live births in 2020 totaled 36,054, marking only the third time in more than a century that the number of babies born in a single year fell below 37,000 — 36,790 in 1995 and 36,641 in 1997. Iowa's high year for births was 66,123 in 1951.
"Iowa is following the national pattern, for sure," said Susan Stewart, a professor of sociology and demographer at Iowa State University who studies family patterns. "Fertility has been in decline for decades, since the Baby Boom. The decline is not unexpected for demographers because we’ve been watching it."
The downward fertility trend likely was exacerbated by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic that stunted dating opportunities and saw couples delay wedding plans as well as face economic stress and future uncertainty in a volatile job market. Those factors may have influenced the timing and elements of family planning for Iowans in childbearing age ranges to wait or forgo having kids, Stewart noted, and countered expectations for a mini-baby boom during the months of sheltering at home.
Concerns over having a high-risk pregnancy, being in a hospital during the pandemic and issues related to COVID-19 vaccinations possibly also came into play, said Stewart. And societal advancements for women in the workplace, education and other roles also came into play — given it is difficult to manage outside commitments and family obligations with only limited incentives like subsidized day care and paid family leave, let alone having to temporarily provide children with their schooling and work from home due to the pandemic.
"The biggest issue is whether after COVID those couples will have the children that they would have had, or are they just going to forego children at all or not have the number of children that they had planned?" she said. "That’s hundreds of thousands of kids who would have been born who may not be born."
Last decade's recession caused a decline in the rates of births, marriages and divorces "but they never bounced back," the ISU demographer noted, in part because children can be financially challenging. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the cost of raising a child born in 2015 until age 18 averages $233,610.
Iowa's rate of live births per 1,000 population fell to 11.4 in 2020 compared with 11.9 for each of the previous two years, while deaths rose to 11.4 per 1,000 as well, compared with 9.8 in 2019 and 9.1 in 2015, according to preliminary state data.
The pandemic, which hit Iowa in March 2020, caused illnesses associated with the coronavirus to make COVID-19 the third-leading cause of death last year at 4,299, trailing only heart-related problems (7,441) and cancer illnesses (6,268) in a year that saw overall deaths to spike to 35,953 — topping 2019's previous record by nearly 5,100.
Also, Iowa reported a record number of suicides with 549 in 2020, up from 487 the previous year — a development Stewart said was not surprising with so-called "deaths of despair" due to alcohol and drugs on the rise among adults and adolescents who could have only limited interaction with their peers as stress rose in the pandemic.
Despite that, Iowa's overall population estimated at 3,163,561 last year grew by nearly 8,500, according to health agency preliminary data.
"At lot of that has to do with our international migration numbers being higher than we have seen over the past couple of decades. That has helped to offset any decreases in the birthrate," said Gary Krob, who tracks U.S. census data as coordinator of the state library’s State Data Center. "The state of Iowa is not unique in this situation."
State data also indicate Iowa's 15,499 marriages in 2020 were the lowest since 1943, while the number of divorces were down for the first time since 2017 at 6,756 — which Stewart said also could have been influenced by the pandemic beyond just the normal expense in setting up a new household in a challenging housing market and disruptions besetting Iowa's legal system.
The only "feel good" data in the state's preliminary snapshot of vital statistics was the most-popular baby names, with Olivia topping the girls as the choice of 169 Iowa parents and Oliver for boys for the second straight year at 212.
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