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China’s population crisis is a reminder of a key U.S. advantage

The world is on the cusp of a remarkable transition — remarkable, at least, to those of us born in the 20th century. China, long the most populous nation on the planet, will soon see its population be overtaken by India’s.

There are two reasons for that shift. The first is that India’s population has grown quickly in recent decades and continues to do so. The second is that, as was widely reported this week, China’s population contracted during 2022 for the first time in decades.

A country that once limited most families to having only one child to restrict population growth is now experiencing more deaths than births. As The Washington Post noted on Tuesday, this is a common trend around the world. But it also serves as a reminder of the important role that immigration plays in boosting the United States’ own population growth.

Data from the United Nations (compiled and shared by Our World in Data) shows how birth and death patterns in a number of countries have evolved over time. Here, for example, are the annual numbers of births and deaths from 1950 to 2021 in China, India, the United States and Japan — the poster child for a nation where population decline is powered by low birthrates.

You can see covid-19-related-death increases in the United States and India and the increases in deaths per year in the United States and Japan. You can also see how the number of births in India and China has slowed, the latter precipitously. (You can also see the horrifying effects of the famine that struck China in the late-1950s.)

Note that the vertical scale of the charts above is specific to each country. China and India see far more births and deaths than the United States or Japan, as is obvious if we use the same scale for each country.

If we subtract the annual number of deaths from the annual number of births, we get a metric called natural population change. It is, quite simply, the net number of people added to or subtracted from a population through natural processes. In the United States, the natural population change is still slightly positive — more births than deaths. In Japan, it’s negative. In China, it has plummeted toward zero.

If we show that net change as a percentage of births per year (to eliminate some of the relative differences based on total population), you can see the pattern in all four countries. Both India and China have seen sudden downturns — but China dropped further, faster.

Thanks to data from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we can look at birth and death data over time for each U.S. state. So, for example, we can see that the natural population change was positive in most states from 2010 to 2020, the exceptions being Maine, Vermont and West Virginia.

(The charts below show cumulative change each year from 2010, at left, to 2020.)

Now compare that natural change to the overall population change in each state. From 2010 to 2020, five states lost population overall (Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Vermont and West Virginia). But in most states the total change in population (black lines) was higher than the natural change (purple line).

Why? People moving to those states. In some cases, that migration is domestic, people moving from frigid New York to balmy Texas, for example. Often, though, the population increase is a function of international immigration.

In 2018, I looked at Census Bureau data that showed how every single state saw a net population increase relative to 2010 thanks to international immigration. At the time, only Connecticut, Illinois and West Virginia had lost population overall relative to 2010. Another nine states (including New York and Vermont) had seen net population gains relative to 2010 that were only a function of international immigration. In other words, had you taken away the population change from international immigration in, say, Michigan, the state’s population would have shrunk.

The U.N. data suggests that India saw a reduction in the number of international immigrants in the country from 2010 to 2020. China and Japan each saw increases, about 200,000 in the former case and 600,000 in the latter. The United States, by contrast, added more than 6 million new immigrant residents. China’s increase from immigration was about 0.01 percent of its total population; the United States’ was almost 2 percent.

One reason that the United States’ annual death toll is increasing is that our population is aging. While one might wonder whether population growth is necessarily a positive (as some do), the increasing need to provide for an older population with tax revenue and to fill jobs left empty through retirement suggests that growth is greatly preferable to contraction. And the United States, unlike China, has multiple robust avenues to ensure that growth.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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