Posted on August 4, 2022

White and Youth Population Losses Contributed Most to the Nation’s Growth Slowdown, New Census Data Reveals

William H. Frey, Brookings Institution, August 1, 2022

Previous analyses of Census Bureau estimates make plain that the nation’s population growth has ground down to a historic low: only 0.1% growth between July 2020 and July 2021. During this prime year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of deaths rose sharply, births declined, and immigration reached its lowest levels in decades. At the same time, population movement within the U.S. led to sharp declines in many of its largest metro areas—particularly in these areas’ biggest cities.

Now, newly released Census Bureau estimates allow us to examine these shifts via specific race-ethnic and age groups. {snip}


The examination of age shifts shows a loss of young people under age 18 and those in their prime working ages (18 through 59). Moreover, when looking at age and race, it becomes clear that nonwhite Americans, especially Latino or Hispanic Americans, comprise larger shares of the population at all ages.

This report also revisits earlier analyses of notable population declines in large metro areas and big cities. It shows that most of those declines are due to white population losses, both from the national white population decline as well as white population movement to smaller-sized places.


The nation’s population grew by a mere 392,665 during the prime pandemic period of July 2020 to July 2021—down from over 1 million in each of the three previous years, and over 2 million for 2016-17. Yet when looking at these trends for major race-ethnic groups, it was the increased loss in the white population (to -878,693) which accounted for most of the nation’s growth decline.

While it is true that each of the other race-ethnic groups grew more slowly in 2020-21 (download Table A), white population loss contributed most. Moreover, it continued a trend, now five years running, of white population loss across the nation as a whole.

When examining the prime demographic components of the nation’s growth slowdown (see Figure 2), it is clear the large negative natural increase (more deaths than births) is what propelled the white population loss in 2020-21. In the year before the pandemic (2018-19), white natural increase was -289,849. This dropped further in 2020-21, to -906,427, due to substantially more deaths and fewer births.

While each of the other race-ethnic groups registered positive natural increase levels in 2020-21, these levels were lower than those observed before the pandemic. (Download Table B.)

It is also the case that growth from international migration slowed down sharply during the prime pandemic year, though immigration restrictions had been leading to lower levels even before the pandemic. Overall, the sharp downturn in national growth was most due to a decline in natural increase stemming from a rise in deaths and decline in births within the white population.


The aging of the nation’s population is not a new phenomenon. The baby boomer generation’s transition into the older-age category has increased that category’s gains since 2010. This generational accession will continue for much of the next decade—decreasing the share of the nation’s prime working-age population. This aging of the population has also led to slower growth in the youth population, as women in their childbearing years make up smaller shares of the total population (particularly among white Americans).


While all race-ethnic groups contributed to these pandemic year declines, the increased losses in white youths and lower gains for seniors contributed heavily to the national pattern. Particularly in 2020-21, fewer white births and fewer immigrants (as well as the continued accession of baby boomers into older ages) were most responsible for the loss of the nation’s youth and working-age populations.


Another measure of the aging of the U.S. population and its race-ethnic groups is median age. The new census estimates show the national median age increased from 37.2 in 2010 to 38.8 in 2020. The white population’s median age is the oldest, rising from 42.1 to 43.8 during that same period. All other race-ethnic groups have lower median ages, with the lowest being 20.9 for persons identifying as two or more races. {snip}

{snip} In 2021, less than half of those under age five identified as white, compared with 76.8% among those 75 and older. In 2010, the respective white shares were 50.9% and 82.2%. At all ages, the 2021 white share of the population is less than the 2010 share. But the changes are biggest when comparing those who were born in the 1970s (ages 45 to 49 in 2021) with those born about a decade earlier (ages 45 to 49 in 2010)—reflecting the rise of more diverse babies during the early years of expanded immigration to the U.S. and the contributions of subsequent immigration waves.


It will no doubt be the case that the nation’s population growth will pick up post-pandemic. But for the white population, these shifts will only moderate current losses as that population ages. {snip}