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America’s Demographic Winter

Population growth is slowing or reversing just about everywhere in the country. That has enormous implications for our future economy and prosperity.

Boarded-up businesses on an old downtown street in Kirkland, Wash.
(VDB Photos/Shutterstock)
The latest Census estimates for 2021, the first set issued after the 2020 decennial count, showed the city of St. Louis falling below 300,000 people and the population of the metro area declining by nearly 10,000. Sociologist Ness Sandoval told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it meant the region had entered a “demographic winter.”

But you might argue that demographic winter is something of an apt description for the country as a whole. Around 1,300 counties, or about 40 percent of all U.S. counties, lost population. Many of those were rural counties, but about a third of metro areas lost as well. Among large metro areas with a population of more than 1 million, about half shrank.

Some of this is surely a result of factors specific to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have fled large urban centers on the coast in the last two years. To the extent that this was due to COVID-19 measures rather than crime, homelessness, politics, or other issues, it may swing back in coming years. New York City and San Francisco, two of the cities hit worst by an exodus, still have a unique draw. I would never count them out. Even during its darkest days in the 1970s, New York City itself — the five boroughs — never declined more than about 10 percent from its peak population.

But there are bigger demographic drivers as well. According to the Census, two-thirds of American counties experienced a natural decrease in population in the last few years. That is, in a reversal of the normal situation, they had more people dying than being born. Again, some of this is from the pandemic. But American birth rates have been falling since the onset of the Great Recession and are now at a record low. Between 2007 and 2020, America’s total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime — declined from a replacement level of 2.12 to just 1.64. U.S. fertility rates are starting to look much more like those in Europe than they used to. And countries throughout the world have found it very difficult to raise fertility rates, even with significant public subsidies.

Immigration had been propping up the populations of many American communities, but rates of immigration have been falling since the start of the Trump administration in 2017, from over 1 million per year to less than 250,000. The Census Bureau describes immigration as being at the “lowest level in decades.” Some of this decline was a result of political choice. The pandemic surely depressed migration levels as well. There’s a split among observers as to whether migration will rebound and increase, or continue at lower levels. But with birth rates falling around the world, including in the developing countries, Americans can’t be guaranteed a return to the high immigration levels of years past.

Add it together and much of America is looking at population decline or stagnation in the future.

One result could be the pooling of population into a limited number of successful places. This seems to have been the case in Japan, where Tokyo has seen its population hold up better than many other places. There are smaller analogies in this country. In Indiana, for example, the takeoff in growth by Indianapolis seems linked to decline in the rest of the state resulting from deindustrialization.

The reality is that there are only a limited number of boomtown areas in the country. The New York Times reported that just 10 counties accounted for 80 percent of total population growth in 2021. This could fuel further divergence between the successful and unsuccessful places. It’s harder to have job growth or lure new businesses to a place with a shrinking population and labor force.

Growth allows everybody to get a bigger piece of the pie. Decline means a zero-sum game. Growth spreads industries and technology around the country. Decline produces reconsolidation, as when most regional tech clusters in the country all but disappeared during the dotcom crash.

America is a nation that’s always been fixated on growth and has had a continuing expectation of growth. While we can hope for a post-pandemic rebound, the demographic struggles that have been a feature of the Rust Belt and rural landscape seem poised to become more widespread. This will create a very different and more challenging environment for civic leaders to navigate.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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