Population growth in the U.S. is slowing, with the decade of 2010–2020 recording the slowest growth rate in American history. COVID-19 was not the cause.
The pandemic had almost no impact on the decade’s deceleration, as the census counted residents as of April 1, 2020, when only about 5,000 COVID deaths had been recorded. That means the hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths after that date will not be reflected until the next census — in 2030.
This trend is based on Census Bureau estimates independent of the 2020 decennial census. Release of the official, final census numbers has been delayed. The U.S. Census Bureau did not deliver the census results to the White House by the deadline of Dec. 31, 2020. The Census Bureau published an initial report on April 26, 2021, although full results are still forthcoming. This was attributed to two factors: the pandemic and litigation from the Trump administration to exclude from the count those residing in the U.S. illegally.
Under the Constitution, the census counts all residents, whether here legally or not, rather than citizens only. Although the Trump administration failed to change the census mandate, the legal challenge brought awareness to American citizens that states with higher percentages of illegal residents are rewarded with greater representation in Congress.
The U.S. population on Census Day (April 1, 2020) was 331.4 million, according to the Census Bureau report released on April 26. This number falls within the Census Bureau’s demographic analysis estimates, which ranged from 330.7 million to 335.5 million. The U.S. population grew at 7.4%, the second slowest growth rate since the first decennial census in 1790, behind only the 7.3% growth in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.
In addition, the 12-month period from July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020, showed the slowest one-year growth in more than a century at 0.35%, lower than the 0.5% growth during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. The year ending July 1, 2021, could show yet slower growth because of COVID-19, based on the CDC’s tracking of excess deaths, defined as the difference between observed numbers of deaths and expected numbers of deaths in the same period, based on historical trends.
The census apportionment report, which was not expected until September or later, was also released on April 26 in a preliminary format. This apportionment report determines each state’s proportional representation in Congress. Seven states lost seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while six gained seats. Texas gained two seats. States that gained one seat are Florida, Montana, Colorado, North Carolina and Oregon. Montana doubled its representation (from one seat to two).
Other states expected to lose a seat are California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
In addition to the slower growth, the full U.S. census data will provide information on population shifts within the country. Americans are leaving California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey for southern states — Texas, Florida, Tennessee and the Carolinas — and mountain states — Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.
California saw the largest net loss in interstate migration over the decade. California grew over the decade, according to World Population Review, but the growth was due to immigration from outside the U.S., as more California residents left for other states than moved in from other states.
Texas, which has grown by 4.5 million since 2010, is the biggest beneficiary of relocating Americans over the decade. In addition to new residents, the relocation of many corporations from California has also benefited the Texas economy. Recent years have seen an exodus of tech and financial companies from California to Texas due in part to a more favorable tax climate. California remains the largest state, but Texas, at second, is closing the gap.
Some states are losing population. From the 2010 census through 2021, Illinois lost 260,000 residents, New York 100,000 and West Virginia 86,000. The overall population in Connecticut, Mississippi and Vermont also declined.
The slower overall growth trend in the U.S. follows a similar, long-term trend in Europe. Africa, meanwhile, is experiencing accelerated growth. With a population that already exceeds that of Europe and North America combined (1.37 billion), Africa’s growth rate is three times that of any other continent.
The U.S. remains the world’s third most populous country, behind China and India, each with a population roughly four times that of the U.S. Together China and India are home to more than one-third of the world’s 7.8 billion people. India’s population grew by 140 million (equal to more than 40% of the U.S. population) in the second decade of the 21st century, and it is expected to overtake China as the world’s largest nation within the next decade as China’s population growth ebbs.
The census is important not just for state governments. It is also a useful tool for the church reaching out with the Gospel. The data provides not only raw numbers but demographic information to inform Christian ministries about the people migrating into the cities and states where they labor. Ministries in growing areas can reach out early to new residents to not only present the message of salvation found in Jesus Christ alone, but to give new residents a connection in the community through the local church. Ministries in areas losing population, usually accompanied by economic downturns, need to continue serving faithfully, providing pastoral care and practical help for those in need. It is also a regular reminder that a growing congregation is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness; as population ebbs and flows, so may congregational attendance. Churches should not focus on numerical growth, but faithful teaching and service.
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:36–38)
Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford