California life cycle: Record high deaths, record low births

As of March 16, 2021 at least 55,372 Californians have died of COVID-19. That number will continue to grow, as the pace of new infections and hospitalizations slows but does not stop. 

It’s an obvious but inescapable point: 2020 was a deadly year in California. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020 was the deadliest year in modern American history.  

Monthly deaths of all causes across the state California broke from the historic baseline in March and never returned. In December, when California was besieged by its third and most catastrophic viral wave, the monthly death toll was 60% higher than the same month a year prior. 

With more death, there has also been less new life. Monthly births have been on the decline in California and across much of the United States for half a decade. But in January 2021, the most recent figure available and the first that is more than nine months after the beginning of the pandemic, California births reached a new dramatic low: 27,673.

It’s not just California. The entire world seems to be experiencing a baby bust.

It’s not clear why the births were on the decline well before the first documented COVID-19 case in California. Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, said it could be a combination of ever-escalating home prices in California and the dour, uncertain political mood of the last four years. 

“People have babies when they are more optimistic,” he said. “The birth rate is a barometer of despair” — only in reverse. As more data comes out, he said he expects a dramatic decline in newborn Californians through 2021.  

That should give California baby boosters some optimism, said Myers. He points to the winding down of the pandemic, a likely resurgence in economic activity and more pro-baby policies at the federal level. “We’ve been due for a bounce back and I think we’re gonna get it.”