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Deaths outpaced births in a record number of states in 2020, which could have serious consequences

Gravestones appear at a cemetery.
Gravestones in a cemetery.

Wide swaths of the U.S. are experiencing a significant demographic shift. In 2020, deaths exceeded births in a record number of states.

COVID-19 is partly to blame for the trend, which could have long-standing economic and political consequences.

Lauren Whitmore and her husband planned to start trying to have their first child in early 2020.

But that changed when the pandemic upended Whitmore’s wedding photography business in Lansing, Michigan.

“We decided to put everything on pause," Whitmore said. "We just wanted to make sure, you know, we were in a stable place financially.”

They decided to try again once their financial outlook improved and are expecting a baby in a few weeks.

But, overall, the pandemic appears to have accelerated a nationwide baby bust.

U.S. birth rates were down nearly 8% in December 2020compared to a year before following years of declining fertility rates since the mid-2000s.

On the other end of the lifecycle was COVID-19.

More than 350,000 Americans died from the virus in 2020. Even more died last year.

And there were the excess deaths — people whose deaths were influenced by the pandemic, even if the official cause wasn't COVID-19. They might have delayed medical care because of lockdowns or overwhelmed hospitals. Or they could have have suffered a drug overdose amid a mental health crisis.

Alabama’s Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris raised alarm bells about COVID last year, noting more people died than were born in 2020 for the first time in that state’s known history.

“In World War II or during the flu pandemic of 1918, World War I, we've never had a time where deaths exceeded births," Harris said.

University of New Hampshire Professor Kenneth Johnson says Alabama’s numbers aren’t outliers.

His analysis shows more people died than were born in half of all states in 2020, something that has never happened before.

"It was pretty surprising that it was as widespread as it was," Johnson said.

Michigan-based demographer Kurt Metzger is concerned about his state's flatlining population. Deaths eclipsed births there in 2020 for the first time since at least 1900.

Michigan has lost six Congressional seats since 1970 because it's grown more slowly than other states and Metzger says population equals power.

“The federal dollars and the resources that come really will continue to go south and southwest if we don't figure out how to start to stabilize our population and grow it," Metzger said.

Shifting population could force more school districts to merge in certain areas and the economy could stagnate with fewer working-age adults to support retirees.

Although COVID was largely behind the recent uptick in deaths, this demographic shift has been decades in the making.

Nyesha Black directs demographic research at the University of Alabama and notes the role of baby boomers.

“They're more likely to have a higher median age and thus outside of what we would consider their childbearing years," Black said. "So, naturally, you’re going to see fewer births and more deaths.”

There is one reason why the U.S. has historically been able to grow its population: Immigration.

But restrictions in recent years have affected immigration.

Even still, with births down and deaths up, it accounts for most of the population growth in 2020 and 2021.

Even as that growth was at an all-time low of 0.1%.

Sarah Lehr is a state government reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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