In this brief, author Kenneth Johnson reports that the U.S. population grew by just 393,000 between July of 2020 and July of 2021 according to new Census Bureau estimates—the lowest rate of annual population gain in history and the smallest numeric gain in more than 100 years. Diminished immigration from abroad contributed, but the driver of this minimal population gain was that there were only 148,000 more births than deaths. This is the smallest natural gain in more than 80 years. COVID-19 played a central role in this small population gain. In addition to 475,000 deaths directly attributable to COVID-19 during the period, it also increased mortality by hindering people’s access to treatment for other health conditions, discouraged people from having babies, and reduced immigration.
Looking ahead, the short-term prospects for substantial population increase appear limited. Over the past decade, the number of deaths has been growing, while the number of births has diminished. As a result, the excess of births over deaths was already dwindling before the onset of the pandemic. COVID-19 exacerbated these trends by significantly increasing mortality and further depressing fertility. Over the long term, mortality is likely to continue to rise among the aging U.S. population. Simultaneously, the decline in births, which began during the Great Recession, appears to be ongoing. This leaves little likelihood of significant natural gain to fuel population growth. Immigration also remains at a low ebb.
How protracted the additional fertility decline and mortality increases associated with COVID-19 will be, or what the prospects for immigration are, remains to be seen, but to date they have dramatically reduced population growth in the United States.
Carsey School of Public Policy
National Issue Brief No. 158
Durham, N.H. : Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire
Johnson, Kenneth M., "Smallest U.S. Population Growth in History: More Deaths, Fewer Births, and Less Immigration" (2021). The Carsey School of Public Policy at the Scholars' Repository. 442.
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