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America's population growth future

America's population growth future
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The 2020 U.S. population census recently reported a total population for the country of 331 million people and a growth rate of 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2020, making it the country’s second slowest since the 7.3 percent growth rate during the decade of the Great Depression. 

The recent decadal rate of population growth for the country is not an aberration, but a clear demographic signal that America’s high population growth rates of the recent past are over, and it is time for the country to adjust to the new demographic realities and many benefits of slower population growth in the coming decades. 

Despite the indisputable demographic changes underway, some are lamenting America’s comparatively slow population growth rate and calling for a return to the high rates of the past. The slowdown in America’s population growth is considered a net negative by many across the political spectrum and some are calling for higher rates of future population growth for the country.

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During the recent past, decadal population growth rates for the U.S. were approximately double the level of the past decade. For the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, America’s population growth rates were about 18.5 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively. 

Census Bureau population projections for the coming decades point to continuing declines in America’s population growth rate. For example, in the upcoming two decades, i.e., the 2020s and 2030s, the U.S. decadal population growth rates are expected to be about 6.8 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively. 

Those population projections assume a net migration of approximately 1.1 million migrants with the total U.S. population in 2060 reaching close to 405 million. Without future immigration, however, the U.S. population is projected to face population decline, reaching 320 million by 2060.

Given the country’s current demographic realities, it appears highly unlikely that America will return to the comparatively high population growth rates of past decades. In order to do so, current below replacement fertility rates and anticipated future immigration levels would need to increase substantially. 

As is the case in virtually all developed countries and many developing countries, including Brazil, China and Thailand, the U.S. fertility rate is below the replacement level. In 2019 the U.S. fertility rate was 1.7 births per woman, a new low for the past three decades. Given the powerful and pervasive various forces keeping fertility at low levels, including postponed childbearing, women’s employment, marital disruption, lifestyle choices, high costs of child rearing and lack of child care, the U.S. rate is likely to remain below the replacement level for the foreseeable future. 

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With U.S. fertility continuing at below replacement levels, increasing the country’s population growth rate would necessarily require raising immigration levels well beyond the roughly 1 million per year assumed in Census Bureau population projections

For example, in order for the U.S. population growth rate to reach 15 percent during the decade of the 2020s, it would require approximately a five-fold increase in the annual number of immigrants over the 10-year period. Here again, given the sociopolitical circumstances in the country, the current immigration level of slightly more than a million per year is unlikely to be significantly increased in the foreseeable future. 

Many government officials, economists, business leaders and others are having difficulty accepting slower U.S. population growth rates and are raising alarm bells. High rates of population growth, according to them, are essential for the country’s economic growth, prosperity and geopolitics. 

Another major concern about slower U.S. population growth raised by some involves global affairs and national security. Currently, the U.S. population is the world’s third largest after China and India, which have populations of about 1.44 billion and 1.39 billion, respectively. However, current population projections have America’s population falling to fourth place behind Nigeria’s in about 25 years.  

To keep up with China and other rival countries and maintain America’s leadership role, geopolitical dominance and global supremacy, they contend, the U.S. will need higher rates of population growth than recently experienced in order to achieve much larger future population increases. Again, they argue that population growth helps determine economic growth, particularly in advanced economies.

In order to achieve those higher levels of population growth, they call for increased levels of immigration. For example, if the current annual number of immigrants of approximately 1 million were increased 10-fold, the U.S. would be the world’s most populous nation by the close of the 21st century with approximately 1.5 billion Americans. This demographic achievement, it is believed, would not only contribute to making America the greatest nation on the planet, but it would also increase the country’s capacity to promote economic development, political democracy and universal human rights worldwide. 

The call for higher U.S. immigration levels is also buttressed by the view that more of the many millions of people around the world who wish to migrate to America will get an opportunity to do so. However, most Americans, approximately 62 percent, are not in favor of raising immigration, but wish to maintain or decrease current U.S. immigration levels.

The slowdown in U.S. population growth rates should not be viewed with alarm and fear of population decline. Slower rates of population growth have important implications for environmental concerns, including climate change, natural resources, biodiversity, congestion and pollution. Slower rates will make it far easier and less costly to tackle those worsening environmental conditions in the country.

In sum, the conclusion regarding U.S. population growth rates for the coming decades should be clear. The high U.S. population growth rates of the recent past are over. It is time for America to adjust their policies, programs and thinking to the new demographic realities and benefits of slower population growth throughout the decades of the 21st century.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."