Coronavirus could push the U.S. into its first population decline in history

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As coronavirus continues to indiscriminately sweep across the country, new analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that if things keep up, the United States could be headed toward its first annual population decline in history.

To begin with, it's important to note that the numbers, released by the Census Bureau and analyzed by researchers at the University Of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy, reflect data culled between July 2018 and July 2019 — well before coronavirus began to ravage its way through China, Europe, and ultimately, the U.S. Still, the figures reportedly suggest the slowest population growth the U.S. has seen since 1919 — incidentally, smack dab during the Spanish Flu epidemic of the early 20th century.

It's a trend that, if continued and exacerbated by some of coronavirus's more dire mortality predictions, would mean the United States is on track to lose more people than it gains in a year for the first time ever.

Per Carsey School Senior Demographer Kenneth Johnson:

More people died than were born last year in 1,430 of the 3,142 U.S. counties (46%). The extent of this natural decrease (when deaths exceed births) is increasing. Ten years ago, just 889 counties (28%) had more deaths than births.

Johnson ominously points out that "once natural decrease occurs, it is likely to reoccur." Meaning: If we start to lose population, we might likely continue to lose population.

Still, Johnson's analysis shows that the U.S. population is indeed growing for now, albeit at a slower pace. That could change, however, given the as-of-yet unknown extent of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"If this epidemic is as significant as some think, we could have deaths exceeding births in the nation as a whole, which has never happened in the history of this country," Johnson told The New York Times, which published his study's conclusions Thursday.

In fact, it's not simply coronavirus — whose potential impact has been exacerbated by bumbling inaction of the Trump administration — that could push the U.S. population into negative growth. According to Johnson's analysis, "diminished" immigration numbers — the sort that have become a mainstay of the Trump presidency — have effectively kneecapped one of the key demographics that traditionally make up for population growth shortfalls from deaths and declining birth rates.

All of which is to say that it's not a sure thing that the U.S. will see its population shrink for the first time ever. But, as far as potential demographic storms go, this one seems about as perfect as it gets.