True or false?

Natural disasters influence birthrates

A sociologist once remarked that a blackout can produce a boom in birthrates. When the lights go out, he said, people are left to interact with each other.

All levity aside, there are some researchers who believe that large-scale disasters can influence birthrates. Psychologists say it comes down to attachment theory: that catastrophes, in short, have a way of driving people together and influencing major life decisions.

In a study published in The Journal of Family Psychology in 2002, researchers examined data on marriages, births and divorces in South Carolina from 1975 to 1997. They found, as predicted, that in 1990, the year after Hurricane Hugo struck, marriages and births spiked in the 24 counties declared disaster areas. But so, too, did divorce rates, a finding the researchers hadn’t expected.

The findings suggested, they wrote, that the life-threatening hurricane had motivated many people to take “significant action in their close relationships that altered their life course.”

But some studies have found evidence of a reverse phenomenon. One, published in The Journal of Population Economics in 2010, used data on hurricanes and storm advisories to look at births in 47 counties along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from 1995 to 2001. It found that “high-severity advisories” had a significant “negative fertility effect.” And a study of decades of data in Italy and Japan found similar decreases in fertility after earthquakes.

Disasters, the author argued, may make people less willing to make the long-term investments required to raise a family, and disruptions in family life and loss of homes and jobs may also contribute to declines in birthrates.

The verdict

There is evidence that large-scale catastrophes may influence birth and marriage rates, but in which direction is not clear.


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