Something remarkable has been going on in our country, and it hasn't received as much attention as it may deserve. The US population growth rate declined last year to an 80-year low, dipping below .7% for the first time since the Great Depression.
Looking at the components of this trend, the decline in natural increase - which is simply births minus deaths - is clearly the dominant factor. Immigration has been steady at about one million per year. This is not an unexpected development.
The death rate is increasing because of the relatively large number of Baby Boomers reaching the end of their lifetimes, and at the same time, younger Americans having fewer and later children. In fact, our population growth rate is on track to decline even further to about .5% by 2040.
This trend has implications for our country and especially for rural America. With very little overall growth, rural areas losing population would have to swim against the tide to begin growing. The return of outmigration from the Midwest to the West and Southwest will put further stress on rural schools and businesses.
Social structures like churches and civic groups will struggle as well. Already many of us have noticed we see the same folks at every meeting. This environment also makes it difficult to retain younger citizens. Just finding a marriage partner can be a challenge.
Low population growth also impacts economic growth, as Japan has discovered. It is no coincidence that some of our highest GDP growth occurred when our population was expanding more rapidly. While the US is in low gear, many other developed countries are in reverse. Not only Japan, but Germany, Italy, and much of Eastern Europe are looking at declining populations for the foreseeable future.
When we plan the future of our industry and rural America, we need to face this huge hurdle honestly. Setting goals that assume people will be there or will come is unrealistic. And when communities defy the trend, and some will, we need to acknowledge the magnitude of this miraculous accomplishment.