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U.S. population growth hits record low, slowed by pandemic

People wait in a line for their turn to receive food at a food pantry in Chelsea, Mass., in November. The coronavirus pandemic drove U.S. population growth to its lowest rate in history, in part due to deaths from the virus and a drop in immigration, the Census Bureau said on Dec. 21. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)
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The United States’ population grew by just 0.1 percent in the past year, the lowest rate since the nation’s founding, according to estimates released Tuesday by the Census Bureau — a slowdown in which the coronavirus pandemic had a major role.

The country’s population increased by 392,665 in the year ending on July 1, 2021. Some of the reduced rate of growth can be attributed to decreased immigration, reduced fertility and an aging population, trends underway before the pandemic. But the pandemic helped push the rate down to almost flat growth.

“We knew it has had a lot of economic impact, a lot of social impact; this shows it has had a big demographic impact that is going to last us for several years,” said William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

The 2020 census showed the slowest growth rate for any decade since the United States started taking a census, with the exception of the 1930s during the Great Depression. But the coronavirus has exacerbated the trend. More than 800,000 people have died in the United States since the pandemic began, and mortality has also risen among people who had indirect negative health outcomes as a result of the pandemic.

Over three-fifths of the growth this year, or 244,622 people, is estimated to be from net international migration, or the difference between the number of people moving into the country and out of the country. Natural increase, or the number of births minus the number of deaths, was estimated at just 148,043 people, a reduction of 84 percent from two years ago. It is the first year that net international migration has exceeded natural increase, according to the bureau.

Kenneth Johnson, a sociology professor and senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, called the sharp decline in natural increase “stunning” and said the pandemic played a central role. “In addition to 475,000 deaths directly attributable to covid 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,” he wrote in an analysis of Tuesday’s estimates.

During pandemic’s first year, Americans moved at the lowest rate in over 70 years, new census data shows

Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia lost population this year, with the biggest absolute declines in New York, California and Illinois. Those states also saw large numbers of people moving out to other states. Domestic migration tends to exacerbate overall gains and losses, Frey said. The biggest absolute gains were in Texas, Florida and Arizona, states that have seen high levels of in-migration.

The population of D.C. dropped by 2.9 percent, a steep decline compared with recent years. The city lost about 23,000 residents through domestic migration, offset by a gain of about 2,100 people from natural increase and about 1,100 from international migration. In 2020, 2019 and 2018, D.C. had lost just 658, 2,417 and 444 people, respectively, through domestic migration; before that the numbers had been positive going back to 2008.

“It’s a huge outlier,” Frey said, adding that it is the biggest domestic out-migration the city has seen in a year since at least 1990. The change in administration during a pandemic combined with the large numbers of people working from home probably slowed the in-migration flow that normally would come into the city, he added.

The city’s population had risen steeply early in the decade after the Great Recession, contributing to a 14.6 percent increase between the 2010 and the 2020 censuses. But city officials had expected it to be higher, and some have questioned whether the 2020 count missed some residents. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new estimates.

Maryland and Virginia were more stable, changing by -0.1 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively.

2020 Census shows U.S. population grew at slowest pace since the 1930s

Twenty-five states registered a natural decrease, compared with just eight last year and four in the three years before that. The natural decrease was highest in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

The nation’s population slowdown could have dire implications for the country if it persists, leading to problems such as too few young people being available to supply the labor force, Frey said.

“These are numbers you see in some Eastern European countries. It does make you stand up and take notice. It’s really a benchmark we hope we don’t see too often.”