Unboxing the Latest in US Population Trends – Twin Cities
Recent figures from the Census Bureau show that changes in America’s population and where we live continue to be dynamic.
The 2020 to 21 figures show that some states lost population while others gained. Ditto for counties and cities within states. Given what has happened during this period, looking for links between the COVID-19 pandemic and birth rates, death rates, and migration is a natural impulse for an economist. COVID has certainly affected reproductive behavior, caused more deaths, and changed incentives for where people choose to live. But untangling them and forming economical threads is complicated.
Demographic forces are constantly changing due to changes in social mores as well as economic factors. Some are long-term, and therefore “secular” in the jargon of social sciences, or result from “structural” changes in the economy. Others are “cyclical”, linked to short-term boom-bust movements. Some are “exogenous,” driven by external factors like COVID or the war in Ukraine, while others come from changes within the system, namely water-powered manufacturing in New England, the mechanical cotton picker in the South or information technologies facilitating work from home. Right now we have a witchy mix of all these factors in play – secular, structural, cyclical and exogenous.
Start with the news, reported late last month: Ramsey and Hennepin counties both lost 2020 population to 21, even though every other country in the 14-county metropolitan area posted at least one some growth. Since the city data was not yet available, it cannot be said whether the changes in St. Paul and Minneapolis, the major cities of the two losing counties, were specifically driving the county data or not.
Both urban counties had experienced strong population growth from the 2010 decennial census to the 2020 census. St. Paul was back near its mid-20th century highs. Minneapolis had recovered to its highest number since 1970, but still some 100,000 below its peak of 522,000 set in 1950.
Outside the metropolitan area, many counties in Minnesota continued to lose population. But some smaller “micropolitan” areas, clustered around towns with fewer than 50,000 people, have grown. These included Faribault-Northfield, Brainerd and Grand Rapids. More traditional regional centers, located in agricultural areas but with a manufacturing base, such as Fairmont and Albert Lea, saw slight losses.
These changes in Minnesota reflected national trends. Nationally, several large congested metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Washington, DC, all lost population, while Dallas, Houston and Phoenix all gained. In general, people have moved from colder climates to warmer climates, from expensive housing to cheaper housing, but Miami has also lost people. Statewise, Texas and Oklahoma were winners.
There’s a lot to unpack here. And it’s hard to separate the longer-term factors from the immediate dislocations due to COVID. So let’s back up and start with some basics.
Consider fertility and birth rates. The fertility rate is the number of children born in a woman’s average lifetime. The birth rate is the number of births in a year relative to the population, usually listed as live births per 1,000 people. With the exception of the 1930s plunge during the Depression, followed by the baby boom after World War II, these have been trending downward in our country for two centuries.
In 1800, the fertility rate was about seven children per woman. In 2020, it was 1.8. The crucial turning point is around 2.06. It is the number of children per woman needed to maintain a stable long-term population, excluding immigration and emigration. We fell below this level during the “birth shortage” of the 1970s, but then we were at least above 2.0 from 1995 to 2010, before falling back to 1.88 in 2015, then to 1.8.
Also understand that there is a “momentum” in population growth. If large cohorts of young families outgrow those leaving their reproductive years, the birth rate can easily continue to exceed the death rate, and so the population can continue its “natural increase” even if the fertility rate falls. below 2.0. That’s what happened in the 1970s. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, fertility was below 2.0, but there were millions of baby boomers just reaching l childbearing age. Thus, the population continued to grow even before immigration.
Much of Europe and Japan experienced “negative natural increase” for a few decades as fertility fell, populations aged and, as a result, crude death rates rose. Our nation hadn’t come to this point yet, but, due to COVID, deaths have exceeded births in many states and cities over the past 24 months.
What many people don’t realize is how much fertility rates have dropped around the world. Again, due to the momentum, the world’s population is not declining yet, but it will. Aging and declining populations in poor countries will be the “population bomb” of this century, not rapid population growth. Brazil’s fertility rate was still above six births per woman when I first visited in 1969. It is now 1.7, lower than our country’s and falling.
Migration between nations is also a huge economic and demographic problem. But migration within national borders is also essential. The historic movement of white and black sharecroppers from the Deep South to the manufacturing towns of the North, or from the Appalachian coalfields to Detroit, or from the high plains of the Dust Bowl to the fertile farms of California, looms large in economic history. the United States.
Internal migration may now be tech-driven and less dramatic than the Okies heading west on Route 66. Without the invention of cheap air conditioning, megacities like Los Angeles and, in particular, Phoenix, Tucson , Dallas, Houston and Miami, would have not evolved like them. Even Atlanta and Birmingham would have been less attractive places for business without air conditioning.
Technology intersecting with social mores has also affected our local towns. By the 1990s, townhouses were increasing by the thousands in the outer suburbs of Twin Cities like Norwood-Young America and Maple Grove-Maple Plain. Young couples bought them, often accepting long journeys inland, and planning to move into individual starter residences when they started having children.
But travel times have increased, the average age at first marriage has increased, fertility rates have fallen, and we have built tram lines linking the two central cities and down to the airport. Condos and apartment buildings along these corridors have become the new boom.
This construction continues rapidly despite the pandemic, and quick, cheap commutes to white-collar jobs and urban social activities remain a big draw. But COVID, crossed with reliable and cheap internet, has taught employers that they don’t need every body in an office tower in a central city. If we can work from home, why live along University or Hiawatha Avenues? Why not at the edge of a lake near Brainerd or along the Côte-Nord? Or perhaps overlooking the haunting vistas of southwestern Minnesota’s Coteau des Prairies, where you can plug your computer directly into a wind turbine? All this will be a big problem.
Much more can be said about the interactions between demography and the economy, including the politics of tax burdens and the availability of public goods, but that has to wait for a next column.
St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at [email protected]