Here’s a barely talked about dynamic of the pandemic: The United States experienced its lowest population growth rate since at least 1900, when the Census Bureau began doing estimates.
While the country – the world in fact – has seen a declining population growth rate for years, current statistics surprise even the experts.
“I was expecting low growth but nothing this low,” William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program, told the Associated Press. “It tells us that this pandemic has had a huge impact on us in all kinds of ways, and now demography.”
According to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday, the country grew by just 0.1% from July 2020 to July 2021 – or by 392,665 people. That’s the first time growth was less than a million people since 1937.
Idaho added the most to its population in 2021, with 2.9% growth. The District of Columbia and New York had the biggest declines, losing 2.9% and 1.6% respectively. Massachusetts falls somewhere in the middle, with a growth rate of 0.75, ranking 28th in the United States.
This dynamic is driven by a variety of forces. Fertility rates are down, more women are engaged in meaningful careers and choosing not to have children, those who do are having fewer, and the country is aging.
Even the youngest baby boomers, born in 1964, are reaching retirement age, and the oldest, born in 1946, are 75.
The end result is a shortage of young people coming into the workforce to support that aging population.
The pandemic has ravaged the child care system, with centers shutting down due to worker shortages and financial failure. Costs, as a result, are rising – and they already were difficult for families to manage. For an infant, parents can expect to spend more than $17,062 a year in the Bay State, or about $1,400 a month. New Hampshire comes in lower at about $13,000 a year or $1,100 a month. The high cost of housing and shortages – especially amid the pandemic – create additional financial stressors, giving potential parents pause. Inadequate paid parental leave adds more.
There’s no guarantee that the current worker shortage will resolve as the pandemic subsides. If it doesn’t, the dependency ratio – older people relying on younger people to sustain the economy – will skyrocket. And a crisis in end-of-life services looms if there aren’t enough working caregivers.
“Population growth has been slowing for years because of lower birth rates and decreasing net international migration, while mortality rates are rising due to the aging of the nation’s population,” said Kristie Wilder, a demographer in the Population Division at the Census Bureau. “Now, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this combination has resulted in a historically slow pace of growth.”
Demographers knew this was coming. But the pandemic is speeding up the process, as it did with so many other things – most tragically death.
If young families – and their children and grandchildren – are expected to carry America into the future, the government needs to act now to help them overcome the ballooning number of challenges.