More white people are dying than being born in about one-third of the states, a new peak in a trend that is reshaping the social, political and economic landscape of the U.S.
Research released Tuesday by the University of New Hampshire found that the number of states where white deaths outpace births has climbed rapidly over the last decade, rising to 17 in 2014 from just four in 2004.
These states extend beyond rural areas known for their withering populations to include those with large metropolitan areas, such as California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, as well as otherwise growing Sunbelt destinations like Nevada and Arizona.
The figures exclude residents moving from state to state and the arrival of immigrants. In a handful of these 17 states, the white population still rose in recent years because whites moved in, said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire who co-wrote the research.
And in all but Maine and West Virginia, these states are still seeing more births than deaths overall thanks to growing Latino, black and Asian populations.
White women are having fewer babies, and drugs, alcohol and suicide have helped push up the mortality rate among middle-aged whites.
The research, believed to be the first to measure the natural population decline of whites by state, used data from the National Center for Health Statistics to examine white births and deaths from 1999 to 2014.
The biggest driver behind the shift is a sharp drop in the number of white women in their childbearing years. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of white women age 15 to 44 declined by 4.7 million, in part because the U.S. fertility rate dipped during the 1970s.
Drugs are playing a smaller though still significant role, Mr. Johnson said. Previous research found that deaths from drug and alcohol abuse—including an unfolding opioid epidemic—as well as suicides are hitting middle-age whites disproportionately harder than minority groups. Some of these people are dying before they have the chance to become a parent, further thinning the white population, Mr. Johnson said.
The U.S. Surgeon General warned in a report earlier this month that alcohol and drug misuse is having a grave impact on Americans’ health and the U.S. economy. The report cited an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that alcohol and drug misuse accounted for a roughly four-month decline in life expectancy among white Americans, adding that no other cause of death had a larger negative impact in this population.
Another big factor in this broader demographic shift is that much of the aging baby boomer population is white, which further drives up mortality among this group. The so-called natural increase in the U.S. white population—the number of births minus deaths—fell from 393,000 in 1999 to 82,000 in 2014, a drop of 79%.