According to census figures released last week, the United States’ population grew at the slowest rate in history in 2021. That news may appear excessive, yet it is on-trend. The year 2020 experienced one of the lowest rates of population growth in the United States’ history. And now, 2021 has officially set the all-time record.
Growth in the United States did not wane gradually: it slid, slipped, and eventually dropped off a cliff. The 2010s were already demographically stagnant; from 2011 to 2017, the United States expanded by only 2 million people each year. The United States will have grown by only 1.1 million people by 2020. We barely added 393,000 people last year.
What exactly is going on?
Immigration, deaths, and births all contribute to a country’s growth or decline. The falling fertility rate in the United States is frequently in the news. Journalists are preoccupied with the topic of why Americans aren’t having more children. And, because I’m a journalist, you can bet we’ll do the baby thing in a flash. However, the other two factors—death and immigration—are primarily to blame for the decline in U.S. population growth.
First and foremost, we must discuss COVID. According to the CDC, the pandemic has killed roughly 1 million Americans in the last two years. Tragically and astonishingly, the majority of those deaths occurred after we announced the approval of COVID vaccinations, implying that they were particularly concentrated in 2021. In a record number of U.S. counties last year, deaths outnumbered births. Never before in American history has the country declined in so many distinct ways due to “natural decrease,” which is the gap between deaths and births.
Excess deaths contributed to half of the difference in population growth between 2019 and 2021. That is a strong indication of the pandemic’s devastation. However, this statistic also shows that even if we could have reduced excess COVID fatalities to zero, U.S. population growth would have slowed to near-zero levels. To understand why we must consider the second variable in the population equation: immigration.
Net immigration to the United States surpassed one million persons in 2016. However, immigration has dropped by roughly 75% since then, with numbers falling below 250,000 last year. Almost all of the hotspots for foreign-born migrants, including New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles, saw a drop in immigration of more than half.
Some of this decrease is due to economic factors; as Latin American economies have expanded, so has immigration from those countries. Some of it is epidemiological; immigration has dropped globally as a result of COVID lockdowns. However, most of this is a result of American policy. The Trump administration fought hard to limit both illegal and legal immigration. And, maybe due to concerns about a xenophobic backlash from the center and right, the Biden administration has not prioritized the resurrection of pro-immigrant policies.
In almost every way, America’s anti-immigrant prejudice is self-defeating. “Immigration is a geopolitical cheat code for the United States,” says Caleb Watney, co-founder of the Institute for Progress, a new Washington, D.C. think tank. “Would you like to boost science? Immigrants bring with them a slew of inventions, patents, and Nobel Prizes.
Do you want to keep one step ahead of China? Immigrants propel advancements in semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. Would you like to make America more dynamic? Nearly half of all billion-dollar start-ups in the United States are founded by immigrants. While the rest of the world begs international brilliance to come to their shores, we slam the door in their faces.”
Finally, Americans, like virtually every other wealthy country in the world, are having fewer children. Annual births have fallen by 400,000 since 2011. Take a look at Los Angeles: In 2001, there were 153,000 live births in Los Angeles County, but by 2021, there will be fewer than 100,000. At this rate, births in Los Angeles will have dropped by half by the end of the twenty-first century, sometime around 2030.
Declining birth rates get a lot of media attention, with obligatory references to Children of Men, followed by obligatory references to Matrix-style birthing pods, followed by inevitable arguments about whether it’s creepy for dudes like me to talk academically about increasing a nation’s collective fertility. In my judgment, wanting and having children is a private concern for families, even if the consequences of decreased fertility make it a very public issue for the economy as a whole.
The fact that declining fertility is a global trend means that it is not something that can be readily remedied by imitating the politics or culture of another country. Rising female education and employment appear to be correlated with rapidly dropping birth rates over the world. This is a wonderful thing in almost every way: it strongly shows that economic and social advancement gives women more control over their bodies and lives.
But, as the wide and growing difference between the number of children Americans say they desire and the number of children they have shown, decreased fertility isn’t always a sign of female empowerment. There are numerous possible causes for this disparity, but one is that the United States has made caring for several children too expensive and time-consuming for even wealthy parents, owing to a housing crisis, rising child care costs, and a lack of long-term federal support for children.
The consequences of chronically slowed population increase are far-reaching. Stagnant economies result from shrinking populations. Stagnant economies have strange cultural ramifications, such as a zero-sum mentality, which makes it more difficult to promote pro-growth policies. (For example, individuals in slow-growth areas may be scared of immigrants because they appear to be a danger to scarce economic possibilities, despite the fact that immigration represents these areas’ best opportunity to develop their population and economy.)
The sector-by-sector ramifications of population decline would likewise become quite complex very quickly. In the age of distant schooling and growing tuition rates, higher education is already fighting for its life. Consider what would happen if, after the historically big Millennial cohort, each subsequent U.S. generation became smaller and smaller until the end of time, thus depriving many universities of the revenue they’ve grown to expect.
Even if you believe that the United States would be better off with a smaller population, American demographic policy is detrimental to Americans who are alive today. We are a country where families have fewer children than they want; where Americans die at higher rates from violence, drugs, accidents, and illness than similarly wealthy countries; and where geniuses who want to start new job-creating businesses are forced to do so in other countries, where they reap all the benefits of higher productivity, higher tax revenue, and better jobs.
Simply expressed, there are too few births, too many deaths, and not enough immigrants in the United States. America has driven itself into the demographic danger zone, whether by accident, intent, or complete ignorance of basic economics.