Analysis: America’s 8 million missing children

New population figures from the Census Bureau tell a dark tale of a stagnating population.
The Astoria Column, in Clatsop County, Ore., one of the nonmetropolitan counties that grew in population after the last U.S. Census. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Millions of Americans circle this week on their calendars every year in anticipation of a series of exciting events: The men’s and women’s Final Four. Opening day of the Major League Baseball season. WrestleMania. And the release of new population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

OK, maybe not as many people stay up late for that last one. But we do, because they give us the latest hint about what’s happening in the United States, and what it says about our collective future.

On its face, the population figures released this week show something of a return to trends that had become normal before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

America’s legacy large cities are slowly losing population, while the newest mega-metros are growing like crazy. People are moving away from New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia faster than international immigrants can replace them. The subdivisions sprouting like weeds in Phoenix and around the Dallas Metroplex, Austin and San Antonio are filling up.

Students are returning to colleges, making Whitman County, Wash., home of Washington State University, the fastest-growing in America over the last year. Ingham County, Mich., added 12,000 residents — the vast majority were students returning to Michigan State University. The University of Georgia prompted a rebound in the population of Jackson County, home of Athens.

But underneath the surface, the new population figures tell a darker tale of a stagnating population. Natural growth — the number of people who are born minus the number who die — is turning into natural decline in most places. In about three quarters of American counties, more people are dying than being born.

“That’s just unheard of in U.S. history,” says Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociologist at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.

There are many culprits to blame for the nation’s slowing population growth, from the pandemic itself to rising deaths of despair, plus the natural consequences of an aging population.

But two distinct events in particular have added a particularly heavy thumb to the side of the scale influencing natural decrease: A global slowdown in overall fertility rates, which has hit the United States almost as hard as it has hit countries in Western Europe, and the continued fallout from the Great Recession, which has exacerbated that slowdown.

U.S. fertility rates began falling in the late 1960s, as the Baby Boom generation gave way to Generation X. When Boomers started having children, those rates rose through the 1980s, as the Millennial generation came into the world.

The generally downward trend started again in the beginning of the recession, when so many women decided to delay starting families. Those decisions were surely varied, but economists and demographers expect most of those decisions had to do with finances and job prospects.

As the economy improved over the last decade, demographers like Johnson thought the trend might reverse itself. As more families became financially stable, bought homes with the help of low interest rates and grew into profiles that in earlier years would have been associated with more children, surely birth rates would rebound again.

But those rates never did rebound. And now there is a generation of women who either decided not to have children, or had far fewer than they would have in the past. Certainly at least some who delayed having children, or had children later in life, put their family growth plans on hold once again as Covid struck.

The broader trend of declining birth rates means a huge share of children who we might have expected to be running around the nation’s playgrounds and preschools today are simply not there.

All told, Johnson estimates there are 3 million women in the United States today who do not have children who, had they been born in earlier generations, would have given birth.

Prior birth rate trends suggest that those women — and others who decided to have fewer children than those in preceding generations — would have given birth to 8 million children, a population roughly equivalent to Washington State or the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“That’s a lot of kids,” Johnson said. He lamented the families that went through such a rollercoaster decade: “First they were hit by the Great Recession and its aftermath, then things were starting to get better and Covid hits.”

The pandemic had an almost immediate slowdown on birth rates across the country. In a paper published by the Brookings Institution, the economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine estimated 60,000 missing births between October 2020, nine months after the onset of the pandemic, and February 2021.

While those birth rates rebounded nearly to pre-pandemic levels, they have continued the broader downward trend that existed before anyone had heard of Covid-19 — and there is no sign that trend will reverse itself any time soon.

“I had always thought that children were just delayed,” Johnson said. “But increasingly I’m thinking that’s just not the case.”