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

The United States’ population growth slowed in the past 10 years to its lowest rate since the 1930s, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The first numbers to come out of the 2020 Census show the U.S. population on April 1, 2020 — Census Day — was 331.5 million people, an increase of just 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2020. It is the second-slowest rate of expansion since the government began taking a census in 1790. In the 1930s, the decade with the slowest population growth, the rate was 7.3 percent.

Unlike the slowdown of the Great Depression, which was a blip followed by a boom, the slowdown this time is part of a longer-term trend, tied to the aging of the country’s White population, decreased fertility rates and lagging immigration.

But within the United States, some regions are booming while others are stagnating. The South and West grew the fastest in the past decade. Growth in D.C. mushroomed, possibly predicting trends in other cities once more detailed census data is released later this year.

The data, which is used to determine the reapportionment of House seats and electoral college votes, veered from the bureau’s own estimates by about 1 percent, according to Census Bureau officials. It resulted in fewer seat shifts than anticipated, with Texas and Florida gaining just two and one, respectively, and Rhode Island holding on to its second seat. A couple of the shifts were by razor-thin margins, with New York losing a seat by just 89 people and Minnesota holding on to one by just 26 people.

“This is the closest I’ve ever seen,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm specializing in redistricting, election administration, and the analysis and presentation of census and political data. “It shows you how just little, tiny things can make a difference. ... When you’ve got so many seats shifting around, 1 percent’s not going to cut it.”

Brace said the fact that the data was so “dramatically different” from the estimates was probably due to the coronavirus pandemic, which delayed and complicated the count, and the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the survey and exclude undocumented people from being counted in apportionment. “All of that is causing things to go rather haywire,” he said.

In a preliminary report on quality metrics released Monday afternoon, Census Bureau demographers said the initial population counts from the 2020 Census were “generally aligned with benchmark data” and added that their analysis should not be taken as "an assessment of the accuracy or reasonableness of the 2020 Census results.” They said further assessments would follow.

The overall slowdown was not a surprise. Since 2010, immigration has declined, driven by the economic crisis early in the decade and government restrictions under President Donald Trump. The birthrate has also dropped, and life expectancy has dipped in the past couple of years — a reversal that has been driven by factors such as drug overdoses, obesity, suicide and liver disease and that sharply accelerated last year during the pandemic.

The extent to which the coronavirus has contributed to population patterns is not apparent in the new census data because much of the related displacement and the deaths of over half a million people took place after Census Day. According to the Pew Research Center, 5 percent of U.S. adults said they moved because of the pandemic; it is not clear whether these moves will be permanent.

But it is clear that going forward, older populations, especially those over age 65, will continue to see far higher rates of growth than young ones. The percentage of Americans 65 and over has grown by 35 percent, based on census estimates released last year. In the coming decade, the large baby boomer generation will reach their 60s, 70s and 80s.

[Will Americans be able to trust the 2020 Census?]

Without robust immigration, the United States would look more like Japan, Germany and Italy, where births and the influx of newcomers have been unable to keep pace with the graying of the population, placing burdens on social services and the labor force. A Pew Research Center analysis showed that over half of the U.S. population increase between 1965 and 2015 was due to immigration, which alone added about 72 million people. With no immigration in the next half-century, growth in the United States would nearly flatten.

But the rate of growth for a nation or a state doesn’t tell the whole story, said Steven Martin, a senior demographer at the Urban Institute.

“While growth creates many advantages for a state — a more vibrant economy and easier-to-balance state budgets — perpetual growth cannot be a long-run solution in a finite world,” he said. The current fertility rate in the United States is 1.73, below the 2.1 figure considered to be the replacement rate, producing as many births each year as deaths. “Overall population growth is going to be small, and eventually flat, which has to happen at some point," Martin said.

He added: “A lot of people talk about cultural extinction if a nation doesn’t bring it up to two children per couple. That’s like saying that a 19-year-old is growing less than ever.”

If the nation were to keep growing at the rate it did in the 20th century, when it quadrupled from about 70 million to about 280 million, “essentially, within a couple of centuries, we’ll run out of space,” he said.

[Why your state might lose or gain clout in Congress after the census is released]

Over the nation’s history, growth ebbed and surged during wars, economic downturns and immigration waves. But the overall arc has been in the direction of a slowdown.

For the first century after the United States gained its independence, the country grew at a feverish pace, staying above 30 percent most decades. The percentage rate hovered in the 20s in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and mostly in the teens through the 1960s. It continued to flag toward the end of the century, and between 2000 and 2010, it fell to 9.7 percent.

The growth this past decade was about half the rate of the 1990s, when rising immigration and millennial-generation births pushed it up to 13.2 percent.

The slowdown was uneven across regions. Growth was less robust in the Northeast and the Midwest, compared with the South and the West. Three states — Illinois, Mississippi, and West Virginia — saw their populations shrink in the past decade.

West Virginia shrank most radically, losing 3.2 percent of its population. That continued a decades-long downward trend and reflects out-migration and aging of the population. The state, which is more than 90 percent White, is the only one to have a smaller population compared with 1950, when it peaked at slightly over 2 million people.

Most of the decline there has been in rural areas, where job losses and out-migration started several decades ago and continue to reverberate. “In the ’80s, we saw the loss of a lot of coal jobs and a lot of manufacturing jobs, shifting from miners to machines,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “And in the past decade ... dwindling coal supplies and the rise of natural gas have been putting pressure on the coal industry.”

West Virginia is also one of just two states where deaths exceeded births over the decade. (The other is Maine, which grew because it had a higher rate of in-migration.) The median age in West Virginia is between 42 and 43, compared with the national average of 38. The state’s population is projected to keep shrinking through 2040, according to the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

[Your questions about the 2020 Census, answered]

While most states registered an uptick rather than a decline, the growth was in many cases much slower than in previous decades. California, for example, grew by 2.3 million people, or 6.1 percent, but lost a seat in Congress because other states outpaced it.

“California is kind of a signal that people are leaving expensive states to go to lower-cost states,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, adding that trends show people increasingly moving inland from more costly coastal places.

Lauri Dawn Kindness helps a family participate in the 2020 Census on Aug. 26, 2020, in Lodge Grass, Mont.
Lauri Dawn Kindness helps a family participate in the 2020 Census on Aug. 26, 2020, in Lodge Grass, Mont. (Matthew Brown/AP)

Most of the fastest growth was in the South and the West, which have seen an influx in recent years of people moving in from other countries and other states. Utah grew by 18.4 percent, the highest rate of any state. That reflects its relatively high birthrate now and in recent decades, which has resulted in a young population compared with other states, but it also reflects the fact that more people are moving to Utah from other states than moving out of Utah to other states, Martin said.

Based on census estimates, in more than a dozen states, about half the gains are Hispanic people, including Texas, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, Frey said. Whites accounted for more than half the growth in only five states, plus the District of Columbia. In 27 states, the number of Whites declined.

Data on race and ethnicity won’t be released until later this year, but some states with high immigrant populations, such as Texas, Florida and Arizona, came in with lower populations than projected. “So I think it is reasonable to ask whether there was some undercount of Latinos,” Frey said.

The District of Columbia grew at 14.6 percent. A decade ago, the District’s growth rate was just 5.2 percent.

“It’s an inkling of what might happen to other cities over the course of this decade,” Frey said, noting that early in the decade, many people moved to and stayed in cities.

The regional shifts also reflect a continuation of economic trends, such as a diminishing of industrial and manufacturing jobs in the Mid-Atlantic and the Rust Belt. In some cases, the changes were driven by technology: “Air conditioning,” Brace said. “Once air conditioning came into being, people moved south.”

Florida is also growing because it continues to be a retirement destination, Martin said. The average age there is between 42 and 43. Puerto Rico’s population shrank by 11.8 percent.

Other contributors to population change were similar among all states, with birthrates and life expectancy down across the board, Martin said.

“At a time when Americans appear to be profoundly different from each other politically and culturally, their demographic patterns are moving in much the same ways,” he said. “The raw statistics of our lives seem to be telling us that in fundamental ways, we are much more alike than we are different.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging, generations and demography. She has also covered immigration and education and has reported from the Middle East and North Africa, and from the republic of Georgia.
Harry Stevens is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. He was part of a team at The Post that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the series “2C: Beyond the Limit.”
Adrián Blanco Ramos is a graphic reporter in the graphics department at The Washington Post. He previously worked at Spanish newspaper El Confidencial focusing on data visualization, data analysis and investigative journalism. He participated in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist’s Paradise Papers investigation.
Ted Mellnik explores and analyzes data and maps for graphics, stories and interactives.