Jul 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

WSJ: U.S. population may have shrunk

Animated illustration of the U.S. map formed by people icons fading from purple to gray, creating the appearance of a disrupted map
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The combination of high death rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration restrictions and persistently low birth rates means the U.S. population might have shrunk in 2020, according to a new piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Until proven otherwise, demography is destiny for countries — and stubbornly low rates of population growth will present major economic and political challenges for the U.S. if they can't be reversed.

By the numbers: In half of all U.S. states, more people died than were born in 2020, up from just five states in 2019.

  • Early estimates show the total U.S. population grew just 0.35% for the year ending on July 1, 2020.
  • Every type of U.S. county — from very rural to very urban — saw a decrease in the number of births per death in the second half of the 2010s, though the issue is most extreme in rural America.
  • Janet Adamy and Anthony DeBarros of the WSJ note that "some demographers cite an outside chance the population could shrink for the first time on record."

Between the lines: Deaths from COVID-19 have thankfully fallen significantly in 2021, and in past economic crashes, drops in birth rates have generally reversed when the economy recovers.

  • Yes, but: After birth rates peaked in 2007, they never fully rebounded following the Great Recession, and it now stands at 1.6 children per woman — well below the 2.1 needed for a population to replace itself.

Context: Historically, nearly half of U.S. economic growth has been driven by the expansion of the working-age population, which recent federal budget projections suggest will hover barely above zero for years to come, down from 2.5% in the mid-1970s.

What to watch: An improving economy, new financial aid for families and the huge bubble of thirty-something millennials means that fertility drops could be reversed somewhat in the years to come, in addition to the effect of relaxed restrictions on immigration.

  • But the decline in fertility is a global phenomenon and one that has persisted even in countries with more general aid for families than the U.S.
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