For decades, the United States has remained dynamic and prosperous, even as other major industrialized societies have stagnated. One major reason has been relatively high population growth, which reflects both the nation’s birthrate and how attractive the country is to immigrants. But the Census Bureau has reported that this engine of prosperity is sputtering out.
The bureau found in late December that the nation’s population grew only 0.1 percent over the year ending on July 1, 2021, the slowest rate since its founding. The covid-19 pandemic is one explanation. During that period, the disease took the lives of about half a million people directly, but it also killed indirectly, as those with other maladies feared seeking care or could not get help in overburdened health systems. Meanwhile, economic uncertainty, public health concerns and social isolation appear to have contributed to fewer babies being born.
But the pandemic merely magnified preexisting trends. The 2020 Census revealed that the nation’s population grew only 7.4 percent over the previous decade, the country’s second-slowest rate of growth ever, roughly tying the 7.3 percent increase during the Depression-era 1930s. The big baby-boom generation is aging, with its members entering their 60s, 70s and 80s, leading to more deaths among this large cohort. Life expectancy has declined, reflecting the effects of drug abuse, obesity, suicide and other factors that afflict young as well as old. A lower national birthrate means that natural replacement is not keeping pace.
If it were not for immigration, the picture would be far worse. The bureau found in December that the country’s population rose by 392,665 people — and that 244,622 of them were immigrants. Relying on influxes of people from abroad is an American tradition; immigration accounted for more than half of the country’s population growth between 1965 and 2015. Yet immigration, too, is down, reflecting in part President Donald Trump’s nativist policies.
Robust population growth not only provides more workers to sustain the young and the old; more people means more of the intellectual exchange, idea creation, entrepreneurship and competition that result from people interacting in a free, capitalist society. National policy should promote vigorous population expansion.
A more welcoming immigration policy — one that secures the border, while expanding legal immigration — is an obvious start. The federal government should also encourage more childbirth by making it easier to raise children in the United States. A permanent expansion of the child tax credit, universal prekindergarten education and other new child-care benefits would make having children a less daunting financial commitment. Such initiatives would also help the nation do more with the population it has, making it easier for parents to enter the workforce. Similarly, permanently bolstering Obamacare would make it easier for people to go out on their own, starting businesses without the burden of losing employer-sponsored health-care coverage. This would enable people to find the places in the economy in which they can be the most productive.
The United States remains better off than countries such as Japan, which is seeing negative population growth. But complacency, social problems and reactionary politics still threaten the nation’s long-term prospects.