A (Statistical) Journal of the Plague Year
A Commentary By Michael Barone
As a Christmas present to statistics lovers, the Census Bureau has released its estimates of the population of the nation and the 50 states as of July 1, 2021. The Bureau admits up front that, due to COVID, its numbers are subject to more uncertainty than usual. But overall, they provide important clues as to how Americans have coped with the pandemic, and how it may have changed the trajectory of national growth and contraction.
A comparison of these estimates with the April 1, 2020 census covers almost exactly 15 of the first 16 months of the COVID pandemic. The headline is that 2020-21 was the slowest growth year in American history, with the population rising by only 0.1%. That's even lower than the 0.5% growth in 1918-19, when the influenza epidemic killed more people than COVID in a United States with less than one-third our current population.
Any predictions that lockdowns would produce a spurt of births obviously were laughably wrong. Instead we've had the biggest birth dearth in the nation's history.
This and the "Great Resignation," the withdrawal of a couple million from the workforce, look like results of demoralization. They're the opposite, in any case, of the baby boom and the workforce surge that got started during World War II and flourished for two decades postwar.
The Census estimates confirm reports of people fleeing crowded central cities starting at just about the time of the April 1 census. That's apparent in the states with the nation's four largest metropolitan areas: New York's population declined 365,000 (-1.8%), California's was down 300,000 (-0.8%) and Illinois' down 141,000 (-1.1%). (I've rounded off population numbers to avoid the distraction of statistically insignificant digits.)
Also down after a decade of gentrification growth was the District of Columbia (-2.8%). Washington has been the fastest-growing metro area in the East for decades but evidently, no more. Maryland's population declined in 2020-21 (-0.2%), and Virginia's barely rose (+0.1%). The Biden administration failed to duplicate the New Deal either legislatively or in capital area growth.
Altogether, 20 states lost population, from high-education Massachusetts (-0.6%) to climate-ideal Hawaii (-0.9%). Both were high-lockdown locales.
At the other end of that spectrum, percentage growth was highest in the Rocky Mountain West: Idaho (+3.4%), Utah (+2.2%), Montana (+1.8%), Arizona (+1.7%).
And in Texas (+1.3%), which is a big deal because it's the second largest state, with a population over 29 million. Its 2020-21 population increase was 382,000, accounting for 86% of the national increase.
Florida also scored a similar percentage increase (+1.1%), with a population increase of 243,000. So the population of those two low-lockdown states increased by a total of 625,000, while the population of the other 48 states plus D.C. fell by 181,000.
You see similar contrasts when you compare the states by political preference. The 25 states that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election increased their populations by 1,049,000, while the 25 states plus D.C. that voted for Joe Biden saw their populations fall by 607,000.
If you set aside the eight marginal states, which no candidate carried by 5% or more, you find the solid Trump states gaining 694,000 people, the marginal states gaining 544,000 and the solid Biden states losing 796,000. Or contrast the nine states with no state income tax, which gained 782,000 people, while the other 41 states plus D.C. lost 340,000. The 10 states with the highest income tax rates lost 704,000 people.
No one knows whether these trends will continue for some time, and no trend continues forever. But COVID and the responses to it seem to have done quantifiable damage to sectors of society dominated by the cultural left. Public school enrollments are down, college and university enrollments are down, anti-Trump media patronage is down, restaurants are closing and concerts are getting cancelled.
The flight from high-tax to low-tax states was already in progress before COVID, and Sunbelt migration has been apparent for half a century. But what we seem to be seeing during this plague year is the withdrawal of significant numbers of people from what had been comfortable left-wing cocoons, and their dispersion to odd corners of the landscape.
In a world of politics that often looks like a battle between Metropole and Heartland, the Metropole seems to be losing ground, while the Heartland is hanging on or even booming.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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