The Federalist, April 18, 2020
A recent news article by Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times warned U.S. population growth has slowed so much that Covid-19 might tip the country into population decline this year. It is the latest in a string of articles, editorials, and columns recently that mislead the public about the nation's demographic future.
Like other writers, Tavernise anchors her warnings by pointing out that the rate of U.S. population growth has slowed significantly in the last few years. That is certainly true. But Tavernise goes beyond the data, or even the experts she quotes, and adopts an ominous tone about the nation's slowing rate of population growth and its implications.
Tavernise states at the outset that "a drop in births and an acceleration in deaths put the country closer than ever to an overall decline." She then cites unnamed experts, stating that if the "more dire predictions" come true about Covid-19, "the country could face its first yearly drop in population, particularly if immigration continues to fall."
Is the country's pace of population growth such that Covid-19 may cause the population to decline? Almost certainly not.
Nearly Three Million Americans Die Every Year
Tavernise quotes University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson later in the article, who states that "If this epidemic is as significant as some think, we could have deaths exceeding births" for the first time in our history. Even that is unlikely in the extreme.
In a normal year there are roughly 2.8 million U.S. deaths — 7,700 every day. Each may represent an individual tragedy, but it is the normal state of affairs in a country of roughly 330 million. There are also about 3.8 million births each year. So for deaths to exceed births in the coming year, the Covid-19 would have to kill something like one million people. That's quite a number, and currently considered unlikely.
It is true that the Imperial College Model that got so much attention forecasted 2.2 million U.S. deaths, but the authors were clear in that report that the projection was "In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behavior." One may be critical of the nation's response to the virus, but it cannot be said that there have been no control measures or changes in behavior.
Moreover, as The Federalist's Madeline Osburn has pointed out, the lead author of the Imperial College paper walked it back not that long after it got so much media coverage. Speculating about the worst scenario is not necessarily a bad idea in a news article, but Tavernise should have at least provided readers more context and given an indication of how likely something of this kind is, given the underlying demographics.
What About Immigration?
Tavernise also discusses the other factor that drives population growth, net immigration — the difference between the number of people coming vs. those leaving. She reports this figure was 595,348 in the year ending July 1, 2019. That compares with 701,823 in the year ending July 1, 2018.
The Census Bureau population estimates, on which the article is mainly based, are from July 1 to July 1 of each year. Estimating net migration is never easy, partly because of illegal immigration, as well as people missed in the administrative data sources the bureau uses, one reason it revises estimates.
If we take the Bureau's estimate as a given, and add the one million difference between births and deaths to net immigration, we get a total increase in the population of 1.55 million, the number the bureau's data shows. That is less than, say, the two million increase from 2016 to 2017 or the 2.3 million increase from 2014 to 2015.
Adding a city the size of Philadelphia in just one year hardly means we are on the cusp of a decline in population, as the New York Times article suggests. Nowhere in the Times article does the author add the numbers and at least tell readers the U.S. population is still growing by 1.5 million people annually.
All this means that Covid-19 would have to kill roughly 1.5 million people in a single year for our population to actually decline. At present, that represents a scenario so extreme that it is not plausible.
The Difference Between Rate and Absolute Numbers
When Tavernise discusses population growth in the long term, she mentions no numbers. She quotes Brookings Institution demographer William Frey as saying new population estimates put this decade on track to be the slowest 10-year period for population growth since the government started counting in 1790.
But this is only true in percentage terms, not in numbers. The Census Bureau estimates show that the United States has already grown by 18.92 million, July 2010 to July 2019. Even if the population grew by "only" one million more from 2019 to 2020, the numerical increase this decade would rank seventh out of the 23 decades between 1790 and 2020.
A country growing by roughly 20 million (or even 10 million) people every decade still has to deal with the pollution, congestion, and sprawl that comes with an ever-larger population. Moreover, wouldn't slower population growth make it easier to address the so called "infrastructure gap" — the problem of inadequate and unrepaired roads, bridges, etc.?
Making the country more densely populated certainly makes it more difficult for many Americans to live as they wish. A 2018 Gallup poll, for example, found that most Americans aspire to live in areas with a fair amount of open space.
Immigration Won't Fix an Aging Society
The Times article is really not about Covid-19, it just uses the epidemic as a news hook. The real point seems to be that the country's "demographic health" is in peril and more immigration is the solution.
As is typical of media coverage that touches on slowing population growth or lower levels of immigration, Tavernise is clear: The consequences are all bad. She is convinced that, "If deaths start to outnumber births — and immigration does not make up the difference — society can strain under the weight of a growing retiree population with too few working-age people to support it."
First, it is extremely unlikely that deaths will outnumber births any time soon. Moreover, last year I summarized what the research shows about the impact of immigration on the working-age share of the population or the ratio of workers to retirees.
Immigration is no fix for an aging society. Immigration adds to all age groups over time, not just young workers. This is partly because of the simple fact that immigrants, even those who arrive young, age over time just like everyone else.
Moreover, immigrants are now arriving at much older ages; one in eight now comes at 55 or older, old enough to move directly into a retirement community. Further, immigrant fertility has fallen more rapidly in recent years than native fertility. The falloff in immigrant births is part of the reason the overall number of births in the United States has declined and population growth has slowed.
Also, at present, immigrants and their dependents have been found to be a net fiscal drain (taxes paid minus costs) on public coffers by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. To expect them to create a fiscal surplus that will fund entitlements is not reasonable.
Growth Expected for at Least 40 Years
The latest Census Bureau projections show a population in 2060 of more than 404 million, about 76 million more than in 2019. It very possible, based on the most recent data, that projection should be revised downward, at least somewhat.
But the public would have no sense from the most recent media coverage that we are still growing and are expected to continue to do so for at least another 40 years. Of course, birth rates, immigration, and even death rates, to some extent, may change again in the future. But even a population "only" 50 or 60 million larger than it is today is likely to create challenges for our country that are worth acknowledging.
It is misleading to not even mention the actual increases in the U.S. population. It is also misleading to assume that slower population growth must mean economic stagnation and insolvent social insurance programs unless immigration is increased. In reality, population growth, like immigration, has both costs and benefits. It does the public no good to have a media that presents only one side of these complex issues.