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Wide swaths of the U.S. are experiencing a significant demographic shift

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Large parts of the U.S. are experiencing a significant demographic shift. In 2020, deaths exceeded births in a record number of states. COVID-19 is partly to blame for this, which could have long-standing economic and political consequences. Sarah Lehr of member station WKAR in Lansing reports.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: Lauren Whitmore and her husband planned to start trying to have their first child in early 2020, but that changed when the pandemic upended Whitmore's wedding photography business in Lansing, Mich.

LAUREN WHITMORE: We decided to put everything on pause. We just wanted to make sure we were in a stable place financially.

LEHR: They are expecting a baby in a few weeks. But overall, the pandemic appears to have accelerated a nationwide baby bust. U.S. births were down nearly 8% in December 2020, compared to a year before, following years of declining fertility rates since the mid-2000s. On the other end of the life cycle is the pandemic. More than 300,000 Americans died from the virus in 2020; even more died last year. Alabama's health officer, Dr. Scott Harris, says more people died than were born in 2020 for the first time in that state's known history.

SCOTT HARRIS: In World War II or during the flu pandemic of 1918 or World War I, we've never had a time where deaths exceeded births.

LEHR: University of New Hampshire professor Kenneth Johnson says Alabama's numbers aren't outliers. His analysis shows more people died that were born in half of all states in 2020 - something that has never happened before.

KENNETH JOHNSON: It was pretty surprising that it was as widespread as it was.

LEHR: Kurt Metzger, a demographer in Michigan, says deaths eclipsed births there as well. And he's concerned about the trend. Michigan has lost six congressional seats since 1970, and Metzger says population equals power.

KURT METZGER: Federal dollars and the resources that come really will continue to go south and southwest if we don't figure out how to start to stabilize our population and grow it.

LEHR: Shifting population could force more school districts to merge in certain areas, and the economy could stagnate with fewer working-age adults. Although COVID was largely behind the recent uptick in deaths, this demographic shift has been decades in the making. Nyesha Black directs demographic research at The University of Alabama and notes the role of baby boomers.

NYESHA BLACK: They're more likely to have a higher median age and thus outside of what we would consider of childbearing years. Naturally, you're going to see fewer births and more deaths.

LEHR: There is one reason why the U.S. has historically been able to grow its population - immigration. But restrictions in recent years have affected immigration. Even still, with births down and deaths up, it accounts for most of the population growth in 2020 and 2021, even as that growth was at an all-time low of 0.1%.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Lehr in Lansing, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMMA BEATZ'S "WASTED ON YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.