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2020 census portends a population disaster

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People walk on the street, Monday, April 26, 2021 in New York. The once-a-decade head count of the United States shows where the population grew during the past 10 years and where it shrank. New York will lose one seat in Congress as a result of national population shifts, according to census data released Monday.

Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

Utah won the census jackpot this week. Unfortunately, being the fastest-growing state in the nation over the last decade doesn’t get you much immediate reward — in this case, not even a new seat in Congress.

It does, however, get you a great economy. The unemployment rate was 2.9% in March, even though the pandemic hasn’t officially ended yet. If you’ve tried to buy a house lately, you understand what demand can do when supply is low. If you already own a house, you understand how a growing economy can build personal wealth without much effort.

The question is, do Americans understand what the opposite is like?

The overall census news this week was not good for the United States. The nation’s population grew by only 7.4%. While that may sound strong, it was only one-tenth of a percent better than the slowest growth rate on record, which occurred during the 1930s.


Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Back then, the nation was reeling from the Great Depression, which naturally made people postpone marriage and children, and the nation had passed tough anti-immigration laws.

As Foxnews.com noted this week, “Our past decade’s sluggish rate had similar beginnings in the long shadow of the Great Recession.” But there are differences. The Depression and World War II were followed by the baby boom and new laws welcoming refugees.

Now, “demographers are not optimistic it will pick up anytime soon. Most forecast even slower population growth in the decades to come.” The nation’s current fertility rate is 1.781 children per woman. The website macrotrends.net reports that this is slightly better than the 1.776 rate in 2017, but it’s still well below the 2.1 level, which is considered an even replacement rate for the population.

And this low rate happened despite what, for most of the decade, was a prosperous economy. For a bit of historical perspective, in 1958 the fertility rate was 3.582.

The world’s fertility rate in 2020 was 2.448, but this also is on a long-term decline. As for Utah, its rate fell below replacement level, to 2.03, back in 2019, before the pandemic. In addition, the nation seems to be trending away from a welcoming attitude toward immigrants.  

Demographers are largely in agreement that depopulation will soon be a major global issue. Once the last generation with a replacement-level rate passes away, the decline will begin. The only argument seems to be over whether this is good or bad. 

I say it’s bad, and that is especially true if you look only at the United States. 

Capitalism relies on steady growth to maximize outputs and increase markets through competition. Perhaps most importantly, our government relies on a steadily increasing population to stay healthy. Since 2019, the national debt has grown from $22.5 trillion to $28.2 trillion, and it’s on a steep upward trajectory. How well could the nation service that debt with a slow growth rate, let alone a declining population? How will Social Security survive as young workers shrink and retirees grow? How could the nation maintain a strong military with fewer soldiers and a declining base of taxpayers?

As John Lettieri, president of the Economic Innovation Group, said in a tweet after census figures were released this week, “The big demographic advantage the U.S. once enjoyed over other rich nations has evaporated. Now there are more Americans 80 and older than 2 or younger. The case for pro-family and pro-immigrant policies has never been stronger.”

If you want a glimpse into what the future might be like if these trends continue, look to Japan. Its population fell from 127.8 million in 2010 to 125.67 million in 2020, according to tradingeconomics.com. Experts say the pandemic has accelerated this decline.

As Reuters reports, Japan has the oldest society in the world, and more than 35% of its population is expected to be 65 and older by 2050. A 2019 report by Bloomberg.com documented how Japan’s smaller towns “appear to be locked into a demographic death spiral,” with 869 cities at risk of disappearing by 2040. Some cities have begun aggressively trying to recruit foreign workers. Even in Tokyo’s suburbs, some houses sit vacant.

That’s a far cry from Utah’s housing boom. The Beehive State has done the right thing by passing business-friendly laws and keeping taxes relatively low. Tall mountains and wide vistas don’t hurt, either. 

But even the tallest tree in the forest won’t do well if water disappears. The answers to long-term population trends won’t be easy, but the census should be a wake-up call. It’s time people started talking about it in earnest.