Three variables determine the fluctuations of a country’s population: births, deaths, and migration flows. The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting all three.
The forces that have begun acting on America’s population are dramatic departures from the norm. Every year for the past 100 years, the population of the United States has grown. During that time, though, its growth rate has slowed as birth rates have fallen. Demographers expect this deceleration to continue through the 21st century: A recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet projected that the U.S. population will peak in 2062, and then start to shrink.
The pandemic very likely won’t alter that long-term population trajectory, but the varied and devastating effects it has had—and will continue having—will in all likelihood slow the population’s growth rate even more, pushing it to its lowest level in the past 100 years. (The last time the U.S. population shrank was 1918, which also happened to be a pandemic year.) Here, I’ll examine how the pandemic might shape those three key variables that determine population growth.
Of the three variables, deaths will be affected most straightforwardly by the pandemic. COVID-19 is a brutal disease, and according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, it has so far been officially linked to the deaths of more than 130,000 people in the U.S.
That number could rise to about 250,000 by the end of this year, according to the median estimate from a survey of experts conducted in May. Respondents’ projections varied widely, though, and predicting the pandemic’s death toll in 2021 and beyond is even more difficult. “I don’t know of (and wouldn’t particularly trust) any estimate of [deaths] by the ‘end of the pandemic,’ whenever that might be,” Nicholas Reich, a biostatistician at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and one of the organizers of the survey, wrote to me in an email.
Although the pandemic has caused the deaths of many people who otherwise wouldn’t have died this year, it has in theory also kept alive some people who otherwise might have died—if indirectly. During economic slowdowns, mortality rates typically decline in wealthy countries. The drop-off in deaths is thought to be caused, in part, by a drop-off in daily activity; car crashes and workplace accidents, for instance, were responsible for fewer deaths during and after the Great Recession.
That said, the number of people saved by the relative inactivity of the pandemic is far smaller than the number whose lives it takes. “My sense is that the effect of the [disease] on deaths completely swamps those other forces,” Tom Vogl, a development economist at UC San Diego, told me. Indeed, a recent study found that during March, April, and May, the number of deaths—from any cause—in the U.S. was about 122,000 higher than would have been expected in the absence of a pandemic.
In fact, the pandemic has so thoroughly warped the nature of everyday life that previous patterns may not hold. Even though fewer cars have been on the road in the past few months, the drop-off in traffic has been so precipitous that in some states, deaths caused by car crashes have gone up, apparently because many people are driving at much higher speeds than usual.
Whatever the death toll ends up being, it will impact some groups more than others: A disproportionate number of those killed by COVID-19 are older Americans and racial minorities. And the consequences of deaths caused by the pandemic go beyond what any number can capture. As one recent study indicates, roughly 1.2 million Americans have now had a close relative die of the disease. “For every [COVID-19] death,” Emily Smith-Greenaway, one of the study’s authors and a sociologist at the University of Southern California, told me, an average of “nine individuals are left without their grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling, or child.” The personal effects of the pandemic can’t be measured.
Just as the pandemic has slowed people’s movement at the level of cities and states, it has also slowed movement at the level of nations. “We’ve seen almost a complete shutting down of immigration,” Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said. “That’s because our consulates abroad aren’t interviewing people for visas; it’s because we’ve basically shut down the borders to asylum seekers.”
In May of last year, for instance, the State Department issued nearly 40,000 visas for permanent immigration into the U.S. But in May 2020, the most recent month for which data are available, the department issued just shy of 700.
Even if the U.S. were issuing visas at its regular rate, the country would likely be a less enticing destination than usual, what with its uncontained COVID-19 outbreak and economic turmoil. “All of that portends less immigration to the U.S.,” Vogl said.
Normally, immigration is a significant contributor to America’s population growth each year. Its contribution has been declining since President Donald Trump was elected, but from 2018 to 2019, for instance, migration was estimated to have added nearly 600,000 people to the country’s population. The reduction in immigration this year could mean several hundred thousand fewer Americans.
The small group of people who do immigrate to the U.S. during the pandemic may be different from those who have come in previous years. “Who’s going to get the work-arounds?” Mao-Mei Liu, a demographer at UC Berkeley, asked. She expects that during the pandemic, the few people allowed in will disproportionately be those with the most resources.
When immigration will return to normal levels may depend on the result of the presidential election. “If the Trump administration continues, this pandemic has given them an opportunity to achieve some of their long-standing goals to reduce immigration,” Gelatt told me. “I think a Biden administration would take a very different tack.” But further into the future, once the threat of the pandemic is gone and Trump is no longer president, she thinks that immigration will tick up again.
The birth rate will very likely decline because of the pandemic. The consensus of the demographers and sociologists I consulted was that in times of heightened uncertainty, people are less likely to bring children into the world. And the future is doubly uncertain right now: Potential parents are likely worried both about their (and their children’s) future health, and their future finances.
One recent survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health nonprofit, found that about a third of women in the United States ages 18 to 49 were planning to postpone pregnancy or forgo adding a child to their family because of the pandemic. The economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine have estimated that there could be 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021 than if there had not been a pandemic.
This could put 2021 babies in an unusual and arguably beneficial position. Being born into a small cohort has “consequences for how many classmates they have in school and how the labor market looks when they graduate from high school or college,” Vogl said. Perhaps getting into their college of choice, or securing the job they want, will be marginally easier.
But a spike in births will not necessarily follow in 2022 or later. “It strikes me as unlikely that there will be a date when everybody feels like everything has returned to normal, which implies that there isn’t going to be this surge,” Vogl said. “It’s going to be people gradually, heterogeneously feeling like things seem stable enough now that maybe [they] can think about having a kid again. Maybe that will take a long enough time that we’ll see births fall for a few years.”
But parents might not fully make up for the decline in births by having additional kids down the line. According to the UCLA sociologist Patrick Heuveline, the research on birth rates after previous disasters is “too mixed” to support confident predictions of a sharp rise in pregnancies once the pandemic is over. “There have been baby booms in some cases but not in others,” he wrote to me in an email.
But the birth rate of different groups will also likely be affected differently by the pandemic. For example, those with stable jobs, the ability to work from home, and employer-provided health insurance are being spared much of the precariousness that is afflicting everyone else, and thus might be less prone to revising their expected parenthood timeline. “Whatever their plans are, they’d have more resources to be able to achieve those plans,” Sarah Hayford, a sociologist at the Ohio State University, told me.
The burdens of instability fall disproportionately on certain racial groups. “This has an outsize effect for Black and Latinx people, who are more likely to be in low-wage and essential work and who have the least economic security due to centuries of policies that denied them the opportunity to build wealth,” Anu Manchikanti Gómez, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, told me. “I expect the people who have the least in our society to delay pregnancy because of the economic and health effects of COVID-19.” Indeed, in the Guttmacher Institute survey, 44 percent of Black women and 48 percent of Hispanic women said they want to have fewer children or have children later because of the pandemic, compared with 28 percent of white women.
At the same time, the pandemic has been making it harder for many women to access or pay for contraception or an abortion. Even before the pandemic, some 45 percent of pregnancies were estimated to be “unintended”—that is, they had either been planned to happen later or were entirely unwanted—and Hayford says that proportion could increase in the near term. The fact that many women have had to spend more time than usual with their abusive partner during the pandemic could also contribute to that rise.
The pandemic has also made the challenges of being a working parent in the U.S. even clearer. Krystale Littlejohn, a sociologist at the University of Oregon, suggested that some people who were previously considering having a child might postpone doing so after becoming “hyper-aware” of the burdens of “parenting in general, and pandemic parenting specifically,” and that women in particular might be more conscious of the effects that parenthood can have on their career.
The three variables that determine population change are all shifting: Deaths are rising, immigration is falling, and birth rates will, in all likelihood, start dropping at the end of the year. “Between births and deaths, we’re talking about more than half a million people missing from the U.S. population next year,” Vogl said. The U.S. population’s growth was already slowing, and this will slow it further.
Just how much growth will decelerate during the pandemic is not yet clear. Putting specific numbers on these trends is difficult, though making rough estimates is possible.
From the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S. to the end of 2021, the combination of more deaths, fewer births, and fewer immigrants could lead to something like 500,000 to 1 million fewer people in the population—and that deficit could be even larger if, next year, mortality remains high and immigration remains low. That would be a large drop, and it would probably reduce America’s population growth to its lowest level in 100 years. But it wouldn’t be large enough to make the population stop growing entirely: Before the pandemic, the number of births in the U.S. exceeded the number of deaths each year by roughly 1 million. So, over that same period from early 2020 to the end of 2021, the population would have been expected, in the absence of a pandemic, to grow by not quite 2 million, just as a result of births and deaths. Which means that even with a major loss of 1 million due to the pandemic, the population would still grow.
That said, there is a conceivable future—not likely, but not impossible either—in which the U.S. population shrinks over the course of 2021. Say that Trump wins reelection, the status of the coronavirus outbreak doesn’t change for most or all of next year, and immigration remains greatly reduced through the end of 2021. That could produce a situation in which America’s population is smaller at the end of next year than at the beginning—something demographers weren’t expecting to happen for several decades.
Of course, a population dip, if it were to happen, would be temporary. “My sense of the immediate consequences of the pandemic [for the population] is that they will be small in the long run,” Vogl said. Even if the outbreak led to 1 million additional deaths and 1 million forgone births, those numbers would still pale in comparison with the tens of millions of Americans who will die and the tens of millions who will be born during the 2020s. In other words, from the perspective of population size, the impacts of the pandemic will be small—even if, in every other sense, they will be enormous.