The population of the United States grew at its slowest pace in more than eight decades, the Census Bureau said Wednesday, as the number of deaths increased and the number of births declined.
Not since 1937, when the country was in the grips of the Great Depression and birthrates were down substantially, has it grown so slowly, with just a 0.62 percent gain between July 2017 and July 2018. With Americans getting older, fewer babies are being born and more people are dying, demographers said.
The past year saw a particularly high number of deaths — 2.81 million — and relatively few births, 3.86 million. If the pattern continues, immigrants will soon be more important to population gains than the so-called natural increase, which is the number of births minus the number of deaths. That was not the case 10 years ago, when the natural increase accounted for a far higher share of the country’s population gains.
“The aging population is starting to take its toll,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “I think we need to get used to the fact that we are now a slow-growth country.”
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The new rate puts the United States close to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, Frey said.
Population change is a major indicator of the demographic health of a country and is made up of three flows — births, deaths and immigrants. In the United States, an aging native population has been buoyed by new flows of immigrants, who in the past year made up about 48 percent of the total increase, Frey said.
Over the past 10 years in every area except North Dakota and Washington, D.C., the number of deaths came closer to the number of births, said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer from the University of New Hampshire. But for most states, immigration and domestic migration made up the difference, and so most saw their populations grow last year. Nevada, Idaho and Utah were the country’s fastest-growing in the year ended in July.
Meanwhile, populations declined in nine states: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia and Wyoming. And Puerto Rico’s population declined by about 4 percent, the bureau said, dragged down further by Hurricane Maria.
“The drop is simply stunning,” Johnson said. “Just 10 years ago, the surplus of births over deaths was 44 percent higher.”
That pattern of rising deaths and declining births has taken hold in many parts of the United States and in areas with little immigration, like New England, leading to fewer students and schools, diminished economic vibrancy and strains on social services.
Maine and West Virginia each recorded more deaths than births, Johnson said. Even so, Maine’s population did not decline because it saw an uptick in people moving in, said Amanda Rector, the state’s economist. She said in an email Wednesday that the state’s annual rate of net migration in 2018 ranked 19th in the nation.
But James Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine who lives in Lisbon Falls, said that the population increases have been mostly confined to the southern part of the state, and that much of Maine still suffers from acute shortages of police officers, firefighters, town managers, school superintendents and teachers, among other professionals.
“We have an aging problem of immense proportions,” Tierney said, adding that some towns have even had a hard time finding snow plow drivers. “These shortages are immense and growing and, in some parts of the state, desperate.”