The birth rate in the United States, along with many other industrialized nations, has been cratering for well over a decade and it’s not expected to turn around any time soon. For proof, look no further than the rapidly shrinking number of students enrolled in public elementary schools around the country. This is bad news on a number of levels and portends some significant economic and societal upheavals in the not-so-distant future. But before you can work out any solutions for a problem, you need to understand the underlying causes. At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson gamely takes a stab at figuring out why America’s population growth has almost disappeared and what, if anything, can be done about it. But one of the suspects on the list may come as a surprise to even the most hardened partisans in the political world.
The U.S. population grew at the slowest pace in history in 2021, according to census data released last week. That news sounds extreme, but it’s on trend. First came 2020, which saw one of the lowest U.S. population-growth rates ever. And now we have 2021 officially setting the all-time record.
U.S. growth didn’t slowly fade away: It slipped, and slipped, and then fell off a cliff. The 2010s were already demographically stagnant; every year from 2011 to 2017, the U.S. grew by only 2 million people. In 2020, the U.S. grew by just 1.1 million. Last year, we added only 393,000 people.
What’s going on?
Thompson begins by correctly identifying the three factors that drive changes in a nation’s total population. Those are immigration (or emigration), deaths, and births. Of course, you didn’t need to be a geneticist to figure that out for yourself. It’s just basic math.
While the question of the nation’s birth rate gets some needed attention later on in Thompson’s article, he focuses first on death rates and immigration, saying that those two factors “overwhelmingly” account for America’s vanishing population growth. In terms of deaths, the author focuses almost exclusively on the pandemic. COVID-related deaths totaled close to one million over the course of the pandemic, with the largest number taking place in 2021. (That is, if you believe the CDC numbers, which you shouldn’t since they were counting people who died in car accidents who happened to test positive during the autopsy.)
But still, Thompson is correct in pointing out the sobering statistics showing that deaths exceeded births in a record number of American counties in 2021. That figure alone makes increasing the total population a daunting hill to climb.
Then the author addresses the question of net immigration, which is the total number of immigrants after subtracting the number of people who permanently emigrated from the United States. We’ve never had an issue in that area because there are always more people vying to come to America than to leave it. But net immigration fell from roughly one million in 2016 to less than 250,000 in 2021. I’m going to assume that Thompson is only talking about recorded, legal immigration here because the number of illegal aliens streaming across our border in 2021 would have surely at least doubled that number.
So there you have it. Lots of people died and fewer people legally entered the country. What do those two things have in common? Why, Donald Trump, of course!
The pandemic has killed nearly 1 million Americans in the past two years, according to the CDC. Tragically and remarkably, a majority of those deaths happened after we announced the authorization of COVID vaccines, which means that they were particularly concentrated in 2021…
The Trump administration worked to constrain not only illegal immigration but also legal immigration. And the Biden administration has not prioritized the revitalization of pro-immigration policy, perhaps due to fears of a xenophobic backlash from the center and right.
Thompson doesn’t call Trump out by name when he says that the majority of COVID deaths took place after the authorization of the vaccines. And I suppose we can ignore the fact that Trump was out of office before any of the vaccines started becoming widely available. But clearly, at least in the minds of The Atlantic’s liberal readership, it was those dirty Trump supporters who were refusing to get vaccinated, and if they hadn’t resisted, fewer people would have died, right?
And Donald Trump was trying to reduce both illegal and legal immigration. Is that what you’re saying? As to the former, that’s also known in some circles as “enforcing the law.” As far as legal immigration goes, there were shifts in the quotas for various countries under the Trump administration, but the total number that could have been approved for entry remained about the same. Trump even increased the number of visas for skilled workers wishing to move to America. In reality, fewer people were coming to America because almost nobody was allowed to enter the country under the travel ban that Joe Biden kept in place. But hey… what the heck. Let’s just blame the Bad Orange Man anyway.
Sadly, the birth rate decline is the biggest issue in this puzzle. The death rate numbers, pandemic aside, were not unexpected. After decades of steady increases, the average life expectancy in the United States finally leveled out a few years ago and even declined in some demographics. Before that, fewer people were dying than the number of new babies coming into the world. With life expectancy stabilizing, those numbers moved closer to being the same. But we’re definitely having fewer babies. Part of that is due to the verifiable fact that fertility rates, particularly among men, have been steadily declining. Social factors are also involved, including the idea of children being an impediment to professional success and personal “fun,” as well as fears that the world in the 21st-century is simply too scary of a place to bring a new baby into it.
So what do we do about it? Don’t ask me. If I was smart enough to figure that out I probably wouldn’t be working here. You’ll have to go ask the guys at The Atlantic.