A spike in deaths and a drop in births have contributed to the slowest rate of population growth the United States has experienced at any time in the last century, in what one demographer calls an unprecedented decline.
In a new analysis of recently released U.S. Census Bureau data, Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, found the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in 24 states over the first three years of the coronavirus pandemic, from 2020 to 2022.
Another seven states experienced natural population declines, when deaths exceed births and not accounting for immigration, in at least one year during the pandemic.
“Such widespread natural decline is unprecedented,” Johnson wrote.
Prior to the pandemic, the highest number of states experiencing a natural population decline in a single year was five, in 2019.
Most New England states and Appalachian states experienced natural population declines over the last three years. So did most Midwestern states, including Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Indiana. Even fast-growing Western states such as Oregon, Montana and Arizona experienced at least one year of natural decline.
Over the last three years, an average of 3.37 million Americans died, up 18% from 2019 and the most in history. More than 1.2 million of those deaths were caused by Covid-19, while so-called deaths of despair rose as well.
In the same period, an average of 3.6 million babies were born, down 3% from 2019.
The net result, Johnson wrote, was a 74% decline in the number of births over deaths. The surplus of just 272,000 births over deaths is the lowest annual natural gain since the Spanish Flu pandemic more than a century ago.
The coronavirus pandemic has sent American life expectancy plunging in recent years, the first major declines since the Spanish Flu. An American born in 2020 can expect to live 77.3 years, down a year and a half from 2019, according to data from the World Bank.
The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated a longer-term trend of fewer births, a phenomenon demographers call the baby bust. Initial government data from the first months of the pandemic found about 100,000 “missing” births — a reduction in the number of births demographers would have expected had the pandemic not occurred.
Some of those missing births came back in the second year of the pandemic, though not enough to account for births that did not occur in its first year.
Even before the pandemic, birth rates were trending downward. One study found 600,000 fewer births in 2019 than in 2007, a 13% decline in just a dozen years.