We answer your questions about baby booms, sewing patterns and rural inflation : The Indicator from Planet Money It's another listener questions episode where we take on what you want to know! On today's show... We look at the U.S. birth rate. Are we booming or busting? Does the Consumer Price Index capture what's happening in rural America? And copyrighting knitting & sewing patterns, it's a tangled issue! If you have a question you'd like us to answer, email us at indicator@npr.org.

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Listener Questions: baby booms, sewing patterns and rural inflation

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I'm Wailin Wong. And it's another listener questions episode.

MA: Woo, woo, woo, woo (ph).


MA: That's right. We love getting listener questions, and we love answering them.

WONG: Oh, yeah. And these are really fun, so let's get to it. Today on the show, we're looking at the U.S. birth rate. We're looking at inflation in rural versus urban America and a very crafty copyright issue.

MA: That's all coming up after the break.


MA: Listener questions episode - first up...

JACLYN MAHONEY: Hi, I'm Jaclyn Mahoney (ph) from Baltimore. Here's my question. It feels like everyone I know is having a kid right now. Are we in a post-pandemic baby boom? And if so, are there things we should expect to see down the road in the economy?

MA: OK, Wailin, you took this one. What did you find?

WONG: All right. So Jaclyn is onto something here. According to the CDC, the number of registered births in the U.S. fell 4% in 2020 and then went up 1% in 2021. This was the first increase since 2014.

MA: OK, so there's a baby bust followed by a baby boom.

WONG: That's right - like, a little boomlet, I would say.

MA: A baby baby boom.

WONG: A baby baby boom - exactly. Just a little baby boom. And what's really interesting about this baby baby boom, at least according to one group of economists, is who the moms are. So these economists from UCLA, Princeton and Northwestern published a paper looking at data that goes through August of 2022. And they found that the baby bust in 2020 came mostly from foreign-born women. So pre-pandemic, these moms represented almost a quarter of births in the U.S. They were from countries like Mexico and China. And the economists said foreign-born moms' fertility rates dropped significantly in 2020, and this was consistent with COVID travel restrictions and, quote, "angst about travel," end quote.

MA: Oh, interesting.

WONG: Yeah. And then when the same economists looked at who was driving the baby baby boom in 2021, they found it was moms born in the U.S., specifically women under 25 and first-time moms, and then another subgroup that had a baby bump was women between 25 and 44 with at least a college degree. The researchers said these moms were more likely to have stayed employed during the pandemic and more likely to be able to work from home.

MA: OK, so slightly more babies on the way. I guess, like, you know, Jaclyn also wanted to know what is the economic impact of this?

WONG: Well, it might be a little bit early to say 'cause we don't have data for all of 2022 yet to see what happened with births. But I will say that if you zoom out and look at longer-term trends, fertility rates in the U.S. have been declining for years, and there's more baby boomers entering their twilight years than, you know, new babies being born. And so this blip from the pandemic probably isn't going to make a dent in that longer-term trend.

MA: Oh, OK. So to replace the baby boomers, we need an even bigger baby boom.

WONG: Yeah, not just a baby baby boom - a big baby boom.

MA: (Laughter) Big...

WONG: Adrian, my brain is broken. Let's move on to your question.

SAM STADTER: Hi, INDICATOR team. I'm Sam Stadter (ph), and I'm from Little Rock, Ark. I often buy knitting and sewing patterns online, and I've noticed that some sellers include a statement that says the pattern is copyright-protected and that I can't sell anything that I make using the pattern. Why can't I sell what I've made? Cookbooks don't tell you that you can't sell the food that you've made with their recipes, so what makes a sewing pattern any different?

WONG: Yeah, so if you've ever been to, like, a craft store or a sewing store, you've probably seen rows of patterns for sale. Patterns are basically instructions on how to make a particular garment, like a dress or a shirt or something. But I guess this listener has seen disclaimers on websites selling sewing patterns that people who buy these patterns can't sell the garment they make based on that pattern.

MA: Right. This is actually a super common thing on sites that sell sewing patterns. But it turns out under copyright law, what you can do is you can copyright the pattern, right? You can copyright the written instructions on how to make the dress or whatever. What you can't do is claim ownership over the clothing that people make from the sewing pattern. I called up a fashion attorney, Ashley Cloud, and she says the reason for this is something in copyright law called the useful articles doctrine.

ASHLEY CLOUD: When we're talking about clothing, essentially it's something that we have to have, right? Clothing - we can't walk around naked unless you're, like, a nudist community of some sort. Otherwise you'll get arrested. You'll get ticketed and fined, right? You have to wear clothes.

MA: So the idea behind the useful articles doctrine is that some objects have an intrinsic function - right? - like a piece of cloth that we call a T-shirt or a bit of pointy metal we call a fork, right? Whatever the things are, there are some things that are so useful to everyday life that no one should be able to claim ownership over them. And that is why Sam's cookbook hypothetical is actually on point here.

WONG: Oh, interesting. So the makers of these patterns don't really have the kind of copyright claim maybe they think they do. So then why is our listener, Sam, noticing all of these disclaimers and warnings on the websites she goes to?

MA: Well, Ashley says part of it is probably the sewing-pattern makers just trying to assert some control, even if they don't necessarily have that based in copyright, though I did ask her, like, whether there are other ways that the patternmakers can try and get that control, right? Like, can they put terms and conditions on their website that people have to agree to, like, before they can buy the pattern? And Ashley said - well, first she said she's not giving legal advice.

WONG: Noted, noted.

MA: And then she said that, like, there's no guarantee that that's enforceable because that hasn't really been tested in court. And likewise, like, a patternmaker could try to, like, issue a license, but she says that's probably not enforceable because you can only grant a license for rights you actually have. And like we said, copyrights generally don't extend to things that are considered useful articles like food or clothing.

WONG: Oh wow. That was quite a legal ball of yarn. That's more of a knitting joke. Apologies to the practitioners of fiber arts everywhere.

MA: All right. For our third and final listener question, we're bringing on INDICATOR producer extraordinaire Brittany Cronin.

WONG: Yay, Brittany.


MA: What's up?

CRONIN: So my question comes from John Cox (ph) in Washington state. And he asked about the Consumer Price Index, which is the most common measure of inflation.

JOHN COX: It's my understanding that the Consumer Price Index calculates inflation by only looking at urban populations. So if the cost of goods and services are going up higher in rural America, is the CPI leaving them out of the picture?

MA: This is a good question. Brittany, what did you find?

CRONIN: So urban is kind of a misnomer here. If you think about the country writ large, about 20% or one-fifth of the population is rural. That's according to the Census Bureau. So does the CPI exclude one-fifth of the population by focusing on urban consumers?

MA: Does it? I mean...

WONG: Yes. No. I don't know.

CRONIN: Well, the answer is no, it does not, because there is no standard definition of what's considered rural. The agency that calculates the CPI looks at what's called core base statistical areas. So these are areas that include really big urban counties. They also include the adjacent counties that may seem rural - they're really sparsely populated - but they have social and economic ties with that big, dense county. So, yes, the CPI claims to measure price change for urban consumers, but that measure covers about 93% of the population.

WONG: Ninety-three percent - that seems pretty good to me. It does leave that other 7%, though.

CRONIN: You're right. It does. I talked to Steve Reed. He's an economist who helps put together the CPI. He said that 7% includes people in the armed forces, also people in institutions like prisons and psychiatric hospitals and farm families and, yes, some super rural areas. And Steve says, yeah, it's plausible that people in those very rural areas have a different inflation experience.

MA: Oh, yeah. I mean, rising gas prices probably hit a lot harder when you live in a really remote area.

CRONIN: Yeah, everything's a little bit more spread out. And so in an ideal world, Steve says we would know exactly what every single person's inflation experience is, but that's really difficult and expensive to do. And ultimately the CPI is an average. That means price change is going to vary based on where you are and what you're buying.

MA: OK, so 93% - not perfect, but room for improvement.

CRONIN: An A-minus for effort.

WONG: Someone over at the BLS is crying, Brittany.

CRONIN: I know. I'm sorry, Steve.


MA: If you've got economic questions, email us. We're indicator@npr.org. Include your name and number. That's indicator@npr.org.


WONG: This show was produced by senior producer Viet Le with engineering from Brian Jarboe. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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