If a growing population is necessary for a healthy US economy, the country may have to rely on immigration to deliver it
Eric Berger in CaruthersvilleFri 18 Nov 2022
In late October, the angle of an adjustable ramp connecting the shore of the Mississippi River to a casino riverboat made it easy to see how low water levels had dropped in south-east Missouri. The downward slope also resembled the population decline in the surrounding town, Caruthersville, over the last decade.
The Century Casino Caruthersville provides a crucial source of employment for the town, which lost many of its local businesses and a Walmart, which closed after 42 years in 2019. But two of its decks were closed because of the drought. Even when the river returns to a more normal level and the whole boat reopens, the fortunes of the town may not change.
“Walmart hurt us when it came and it hurt us when it went out,” said Sue Grantham, the mayor of Caruthersville. “You’re not gonna get those mom and pop shops back again.”
Parts of rural America like Caruthersville are emblematic of a larger trend in the United States: a population that in 2021 grew 0.1%, the slowest rate since the founding of the country, according to the US Census Bureau.
Demographers and sociologists who study the trend point to a number of factors, including low fertility, the Covid-19 pandemic and a significant decrease in immigration due to the pandemic and restrictions introduced by the former president Donald Trump.
And while the threat posed by the virus has waned and the birthrate increased slightly in 2021 after falling for more than a decade, if a growing population is necessary to have a healthy US economy and way of life – which not all researchers agree upon – then the country will probably have to rely on immigration.
“Immigration is sort of the extra safety valve we have for population growth in the United States,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “It’s unaffected by the ageing of our current population because immigrants tend to be younger, and they also have children, which makes the population younger.”
But immigration remains a divisive topic, with Republicans viewing tightening restrictions on illegal immigration as a greater priority than Democrats, and Democrats more supportive of legal immigration than Republicans, according to polls.
But Social Security, a programme which people across the political spectrum support, will depend on contributions from a younger labor force.
“A lot of the people who are part of [Trump’s] base will suffer the biggest negative consequences if the contributions to Social Security and Medicare and a lot of other federal and state-level programmes” evaporate because of a diminished young labor force, Frey said.
While 2021 saw a record-low increase in population rate, it was not a significant outlier in terms of the last decade. Thirty-seven states grew more slowly in the 2010s than in the previous decade and three states saw population decreases, according to the 2020 census. There were 330 million people in the US that year, a 7.4% increase from 2010, which amounts to the second lowest decade-long increase since the government first conducted the study in 1790.
The fertility rate in the United States has also decreased significantly in recent decades. During the post-second world war baby boom between 1945 and 1964, there were more than 100 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, the number was 56.6.
The trend was particularly evident in rural areas, which saw their population decrease over the last decade for the first time, according to a University of New Hampshire report. Meanwhile, in most of the country’s biggest cities, the population grew at a faster rate in the most recent decade compared with the prior one, a Brookings Institution report states.
Pemiscot County, which includes Caruthersville, saw its population decrease by 15% over the last decade, which was among the sharpest drops in the state, according to a University of Missouri report. During the 1950s, there were more than 8,000 people living in Caruthersville; in 2020, there were about 5,500, the census reports.
Grantham, the mayor, grew up in southern Mississippi. Her mother had a flower shop, which Grantham worked at in the mornings before school. Grantham then attended the University of Mississippi and became an elementary school teacher, but she missed the flowers, so in 1977 she bought Joplin Floral Company in Caruthersville and moved north.
Grantham then watched how parts of the area wilted. In 1991, Brown Shoe Co, one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the country, closed four facilities in rural Missouri, including a warehouse in Caruthersville.
″Style trends in women’s shoes are shifting to more casual shoes and those are best obtained overseas,” a spokesperson for the company, which is now called Caleres and based in St Louis, told the Associated Press.
Local farms also gradually needed fewer people due to technological advances, Grantham said. “It’s a big part of why we don’t have that rush into town and all those people here because there were not jobs,” said Grantham, who in 2020 sold her business, which remains open.
The size of families has decreased too. Grantham was one of six children; none of the next generation had more than three kids. “You can’t provide for six children hardly today,” said Grantham, a 73-year-old mother of two.
Women are also waiting longer to have children. And the number of unintended pregnancies dropped to an all-time low in recent years, according to the Brookings Institution.
“More women are in the labor force than ever before,” said Joseph Chamie, a demographer and former director of the United Nations Population Division. “Delaying childbirth, delaying marriage … and when you delay, you often have fewer children.”
Among the younger generations from places like Caruthersville, there has also been a drive to move to urban areas because there are more opportunities for work and socializing.
The poverty rate in Caruthersville is 29%; in St Louis, it’s 20%; and in St Louis county, it’s 9.1%, according to the census bureau.
Wade Mansfield, 53, started Grizzly Jig Company, a crappie fishing supply business, in 1991 in Caruthersville with his father. The company employs 14 people and has managed to stay afloat despite competition from Bass Pro Shop and Amazon, and technological challenges due to its rural location. Most of its business comes from online sales, Mansfield said.
“We found a niche just like Mack’s Prairie Wings,” which specializes in waterfowl hunting, Mansfield said. “Instead of focusing on the big pie, we focused on one sliver, which was the crappie industry.”
In spite of his company’s success, Mansfield does not expect his two older daughters, who live in college towns in Mississippi, to return to Caruthersville. His youngest daughter is in high school.
Women are more likely to leave rural areas than men, the census bureau reports.
The country’s urban population increased 8.8% over the last decade, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“I think if I had all boys, it would be a little different just because of the hunting and fishing [opportunities in south-east Missouri]”, Mansfield said. “The girls want to go to movies, go out to eat [and shop].”
But big cities have also seen their annual growth rates slow over the last decade, and from July 2020 to July 2021 large cities saw a 1% population decline, according to the Brookings Institution. Suburbs continued to grow during the pandemic, though at a slower rate than a decade earlier. Over the last decade, the metro areas that saw the largest increases were in the Sun Belt, including Austin, Texas; Orlando, Florida; and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Meanwhile, cities such as New York and Los Angeles saw their population decrease significantly during the pandemic after large increases a decade earlier. Cities saw an unusual population gain at the start of the 2010s, as millennials continued to live at home due to the Great Recession; during the pandemic, some people fled cities because they wanted to avoid the tight quarters and public transportation due to the threat posed by the virus, Frey explained.
“I think we’ll get back to somewhat more normal growth in cities than we have seen,” Frey said. “Nobody really knows at this point what the working-from-home trend is going to do.”
Immigration levels also remain an uncertainty. In Pemiscot County, a district in which 71% of voters supported Trump in 2020, Mexican immigrants have filled a variety of roles, and farmers have hired seasonal workers from South Africa, Grantham said.
“The Mexicans that are here are really, really good people. In fact, one of them used to keep my grandchild,” Grantham said.
Frey sees immigration as one of the solutions to the country’s ageing population. He sees the diminishing population as a worrisome trend. That’s not only because of the need for younger generations to contribute to Social Security but also because nursing homes and assisted living facilities will need workers, he said.
And a youthful population means more economic potential and innovation, Frey said.
But Chamie, the demographer and former UN population division director, said he is not “ringing alarm bells” over the trend. “Businesses want this growth. They want more labor. They want more consumption,” he said.
Entities such as the United States Chamber of Commerce “are always complaining about a high shortage of workers because they want to keep wages low, and that’s why they keep pressing for more immigration. I don’t see it necessarily that economic growth depends on population growth. You have many countries that are growing slowly, and their economies are growing.”
Leslie Root, a demographer at the University of Colorado Boulder, also does not see the declining fertility as a negative. That’s in part because of the reduced number of unintended pregnancies.
“We know that when people are having births that are intended, health outcomes for the parents and the babies are better,” she said. “Helping people to not have babies that they don’t mean to have is generally, from the public health perspective, a positive thing.”
As to what the declining population trend could mean for a town like Caruthersville, Grantham remains optimistic. The state recently removed a requirement for casinos to float, which means that Century Casinos plans to build a land-based facility in Caruthersville. The company also bought a nearby hotel, which it is renovating.
The comedian and actor Cedric the Entertainer, a Caruthersville native whose film Johnson Family Reunion was set there, has also bought land in his home town. His goal is to bring “more housing, more people and new industry”, he told a local news station.
Grantham thinks the town population could return to levels not seen in decades. “Reaching the levels of the 50s, 60s? If it keeps going, I think we could,” she said. “We’re not but 3,000 behind.”