The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A blinking light ahead: Slowing population growth raises questions about America as a land with unlimited horizons

People walk through a corridor near the Federal Triangle Metro station in D.C. on April 22. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

For generations, Americans have thought of themselves as part of a dynamic, innovative and ever-expanding country, with an almost limitless horizon. In recent weeks, they have seen a portrait of a different nation, one that challenges assumptions about America as a land of continuing growth and unlimited opportunity.

On April 26, the Census Bureau reported that in the last decade the U.S. population grew at its slowest rate since the Great Depression, and the second-slowest rate for any 10-year period since the nation’s founding. Last week, the government reported that the nation’s birthrate had declined for the sixth straight year, including a precipitous drop in births in December, adding up to fertility rates too low to keep the country’s population growing by births alone.

To demographers and others who study these trends, the official figures were not a surprise, merely confirmation of patterns visible for some time. Nor are they unique to the United States. Other industrialized nations from Japan to those throughout Europe have been facing the same or worse for years. But coming as they did in rapid succession — and with the imprimatur of the decennial census on the slowing population growth — the numbers amounted to a blinking light about the path ahead.

The reports have brought into sharper focus the longer-term trends and, as important, the challenges they present — politically, economically and socially. Reversing these patterns will not be easy, as other nations have learned. New public policies could help, but they are no guarantee, even assuming that the country’s broken political system is able to enact such changes. Others believe that slowing growth may be beneficial.

Experts are reluctant to describe America as a shrinking or contracting nation, given its history, inherent strengths, character and human assets. But maintaining the nation’s vibrancy could mean embracing the concept and values of a much different America than existed in the last century. Beyond that, if the current patterns persist, they are likely to result in regional and intergenerational struggles — and possibly more political unrest.

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

To some demographers, embracing the new realities of a changed country will be crucial to the overall well-being of the United States.

“I don’t think we need to think of ourselves as a country in decline if we open our gates and open our arms to this younger and more racially diverse population, through immigration and through investment in our people of color,” said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Even before the latest numbers were reported, there were indications that many Americans saw a future that could bring fewer opportunities, rather than more. The Pew Research Center produced a report two years ago that found majorities of Americans offered a pessimistic view of the future.

“When Americans peer 30 years into the future, they see a country in decline economically, politically and on the world stage,” the report said. “While a narrow majority of the public (56%) say they are at least somewhat optimistic about America’s future, hope gives way to doubt when the focus turns to specific issues.” Among the worries were a weaker economy, less affordable health care, a deteriorating environment and older Americans having more economic problems.

Lanhee Chen, a public policy fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said conversations he has had have led him to conclude that many people no longer see the United States in its most rosy descriptions.

“I think people still broadly believe in the American Dream and possibility, but I do think that there’s a little bit more of a realistic hinge on where the limits are,” he said. “I think for many, it’s not a completely boundless dream anymore.”

Slower population growth over the past decade resulted from a confluence of factors. For years now, younger people have been marrying later and choosing to start families later or not at all. The hangover from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 stunted opportunities for many people, particularly millennials, who struggled to find good-paying jobs and delayed marriages or family.

Added to those factors was the impact of declining immigration — the key to replenishing and rejuvenating the population throughout the country’s history — as the numbers of new arrivals shrank amid fractious debates over the anti-immigration policies of former president Donald Trump. In Trump’s vision, a nation that long has welcomed people from around the world would be a nation with high walls and closed borders.

When the Census Bureau completed its work, it found that as of April 1, 2020, the total U.S. population was 331.4 million, an increase of 7.4 percent over the previous decade. That compares with 7.3 percent growth during the 1930s, a decade that saw the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. More recent census reports found robust but slowing growth: 13.2 percent during the booming decade from 1990 to 2000 and 9.7 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Immigration numbers, which count both legal and undocumented immigrants, had reached about 1 million people annually in the two years before Trump was elected, then began to decline, falling to fewer than 500,000 by the end of his presidency.

Trump sought to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. He also embraced changes to legal immigration that, had they been enacted, would have cut the numbers dramatically. He slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country, as well. An already controversial matter became much more so over the life of his presidency.

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Over the past year, Americans — and those in the rest of the world — have been sequestered because of the coronavirus pandemic, putting lives on hold, causing economic hardship and prompting younger people in particular to think about the kind of future they may inherit.

The number of births in the United States dropped by 4 percentage points between 2019 and 2020, the biggest drop in decades, and the overall fertility rate hit another record low last year. There was a precipitous drop in births in December compared with the previous year, and a recent Brookings Institution report projects a possible decline in births this year of around 300,000, due to the pandemic.

Immigration has been central to the American story, but at this point, the system is broken, and politicians appear incapable of fixing it. Outside of the political arena, there might be a consensus about the broad outlines of what needs to be done. Inside the arena, there is acrimony and political stasis.

President Biden has proposed changes, including a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants who are in the country, but prospects for action are mixed. And that alone may not solve the problems. Frey said coming to terms with immigration, particularly legal immigration, will be essential if America hopes to avoid continued declines in population growth.

“This is something we haven’t taken seriously as a country for a long time simply because it’s become a political football and people have been worrying about who’s undocumented and people of color and all of these things that wind up to be identity politics one way or another,” he said. “It’s really legal immigration which has not been given serious attention. It’s clear from these numbers that’s going to be the safety valve for us to not even have much more reduced growth than we already have.”

Chen said that, in the absence of a resolution on the issue of immigration, “It is going to be hard for us to have a steady flow of people who are willing to come to the United States and contribute to our economy and contribute to the structure of our country and for us to create rules around who can and can’t be here in a way that promotes the broader national interest.”

Trump’s view of immigration has hardened the position of Republicans, whose conservative base has repeatedly blocked efforts in Congress to change the laws, even when advanced by former Republican president George W. Bush.

But Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the Democrats do not have a clear immigration policy of their own “other than they don’t want to be seen as Trump,” which he said is “not an immigration policy either.”

He added, “The need for new immigration policy may become clearer because of these demographic trends, but the politics of it is very difficult, and it requires one or both of the parties to get off of where they’re dug in currently.”

Slowing population growth threatens to result in less robust economic growth, highlighting fears — expressed in some surveys — that the long-held belief that people’s children will have more prosperous lives than their parents is in danger of disappearing.

“In a high-income country like the United States, one concern is that slower population growth will induce a slowdown in economic growth and that the negative impacts of slower economic growth will be felt more immediately and more severely by those who have the least to lose,” said Karin Brewster, a sociology professor at Florida State University, in an email exchange.

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Immigration is one way to keep the population growing at rates that will assure the economy has enough workers to meet the needs of employers and enough tax revenue to underwrite the costs of government programs. More broadly, policies to offset the expenses of raising families could provide encouragement.

“If we want fertility to increase, and the economy with it, policies must be enacted that make it easier for young middle- and working-class adults to combine work and family,” Brewster said. “This would require more than better access to affordable, high-quality child care. Child care must be in the mix, but we can’t neglect the need for affordable housing, health care, and incomes sufficient to raise children.”

Biden is proposing a number of policy changes in his American Families Plan to help families, among them free preschool for children ages three and four, two years of tuition-free education at community colleges, a child tax credit, affordable child care and paid family leave. Republicans such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have embraced conservative policies aimed at family formation and support.

Demographers say that nearly all the growth in population over the past decade was among people of color, with Latinos at the forefront of that growth, and with almost no expansion in the White population. At the same time, one of the fastest growing segments of the population is those age 65 and above — a cohort that, while changing demographically, is still overwhelmingly White.

That sets up an intergenerational battle that has been forecast by any number of analysts. Rob Griffin, research director for Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, described one coming tension as between “an increasingly, probably non-White and potentially foreign-born population that’s making up the working-age population supporting a much more White, older population,” adding, “I don’t even know how to think about the politics of that quite yet.”

Older voters turn out in elections at higher rates while younger voters, especially those of color, tend to vote in numbers smaller than their share of the population. In the 2020 election, younger and non-White voters turned out in bigger numbers than in the past, but one election does not make a trend — meaning older voters with outsized political influence could be demanding more services to be paid for by working-age people with less clout at the ballot box.

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Support for more rapid population growth is not universally held. Beyond conservative backing for reduced immigration, there are some environmentalists who say it is time to question the idea that growth is always good. “I think it’s important to point out that a slower rate of population growth is not necessarily a bad thing,” Brewster said. “Indeed, there are plenty of folks who will argue that slowing population growth, particularly in a high-consumption economy like the U.S., is a positive development, on balance.”

Slower population growth and potentially slower rates of economic growth have regional effects, as years of struggles in the old industrial heartland have shown. For decades, congressional seats and power have migrated from the industrial states to the Sun Belt and will do so again as a result of the 2020 census. Texas and Florida will be among the biggest winners, though the number of seats shifting turned out to be fewer than earlier projections had suggested.

John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, pointed to the problems of depopulation and job loss in industrial states, from increased poverty rates to higher incidence of drug use and rising levels of resentment toward those with power and influence.

Depopulation and the lack of economic growth and population growth, he said, can lead to destabilized and sometimes extremist politics. “I think you see this in Europe and it’s not clear how you would solve that,” he added. “You can’t just sort of increase the birthrate magically.”

Dudley L. Poston Jr., an emeritus professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, noted that, given current trends, the United States is becoming more like Europe. “There are very few countries in Europe that have more people being born than they’re dying,” he said. “We’re not there in the United States yet. But we’re moving in that direction. . . . Without the Latino population, we would have been where Europe is right now a long time ago.”

The image of American dynamism and its place in the world will be shaped in part by what is taking place in other countries — what some analysts call the “compared to what” phenomenon. But if trendlines continue, telling the story of America as it has long been told will become more challenging.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Biden described the great struggle in the world today as between democracy and authoritarianism. He said the United States as the leader among democratic nations must show through its own example and success that its form of government is superior.

The portrait of America that has emerged in the past few weeks offers another layer to all this, which is the argument that there will be a need for more people, more innovation and more growth if the United States is to remain competitive internationally. It will be left to political leaders, if they agree, to make that case and then decide if they can outline a course of action.