Covid-19 Pandemic Drives U.S. Population Growth to Record Low


America’s population grew 0.1% this year, the lowest rate on record, according to Census Bureau figures released Tuesday that show how the pandemic is changing the country’s demographic contours.

The U.S. added just 393,000 people in the year that ended July 1 for a total population of 331.9 million. That included 148,000 more births than deaths, a surplus that has long supplied much of the nation’s growth. The other component—which measures movement to and from abroad—grew by 245,000. It was the first year in which growth from births exceeding deaths fell below net arrivals from abroad, according to the bureau.

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The new estimates offer a summary of the pandemic’s fallout after its first year. Population growth had been slowing before the pandemic, but it had averaged more than 2 million a year over the last decade. As recently as 2016, the country grew by 2.3 million people.

Birthrates have fallen steadily since the 2007-09 recession. Death rates had edged up, especially in states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. And immigration dropped in recent years under policies set by the Trump administration.

Seventeen states lost population, led by New York (-1.6%), Illinois (-0.9%) and Hawaii (-0.7%). California, which recorded only its second decrease ever after logging its first last year, also dropped by 0.7%. The District of Columbia’s population dropped 2.9%.

More broadly, the Midwest lost 0.1% and the Northeast lost 0.6%. The West was essentially flat, while the South gained 0.6%. Texas, the largest Southern state, gained 1.1%. States that grew the most included Idaho (2.9%), Utah (1.7%) and Montana (1.7%). Florida, Texas, and Arizona saw the largest gains from domestic moves as the pandemic prompted more people to uproot for warmer areas with low taxes.

Net international migration to the U.S. remains relatively low despite a record number of attempts to cross the southern border illegally. This year’s figure was just over half the size of the prior year’s total, when net new residents from abroad totaled 477,000. As recently as 2016, that figure was more than 1 million a year. The figures also include Americans moving to and from the U.S.

The Omicron variant caused more than 70% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. registered the week ending Dec. 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The surge comes as the holidays approach and some people reconsider travel plans. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Most of those trying to cross the border illegally are being sent back, while the pandemic has slowed legal immigration channels, with visa processing at about half normal levels and the refugee-admissions program at a standstill. Census figures include people residing in the U.S. illegally, though their exact numbers can be difficult to pin down.

The estimates themselves also were affected by the pandemic, which has delayed detailed 2020 census data on which the estimates would normally be based. Instead, the bureau used limited 2020 census totals and other sources, such as birth and death certificates. The bureau is required to publish the estimates each year to help state and local governments in budgeting and distributing aid. The estimates also underpin disease and death rates.

Despite the nation’s slowing growth, projections by the Census Bureau and the United Nations show it is expected to continue growing at least through the middle of the century. By comparison, the populations of Japan and many European countries have begun to shrink, including those of Germany, Poland, Portugal and Russia. China’s population is expected to peak before 2030.

Write to Paul Overberg at Paul.Overberg@wsj.com

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