Analysis | China’s demographic crisis is a reminder of a key US advantage.

The world is on the cusp of a remarkable transition, remarkable, at least, to those of us born in the 20th century. China, long the most populous nation on the planet, will soon see its population surpassed by that of India.

There are two reasons for that change. The first is that India’s population has grown rapidly in recent decades and continues to do so. The second is that, as widely reported this week, China’s population contracted during 2022 for the first time in decades.

A country that once limited most families to one child to restrict population growth now experiences more deaths than births. As The Washington Post noted Tuesday, this is a common trend around the world. But it also serves as a reminder of the important role immigration plays in fueling the population growth of the United States itself.

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United Nations data (collected and shared by Our World in Data) shows how birth and death patterns have evolved in various countries over time. Here, for example, are the annual figures for births and deaths from 1950 to 2021 for China, India, the United States, and Japan, the symbol of a nation where population declines are due to low birth rates.

You can see increases in covid-19 related deaths in the United States and India and increases in deaths per year in the United States and Japan. You can also see how the number of births in India and China has slowed down, the latter precipitously. (You can also see the dire effects of the famine that hit China in the late 1950s.)

Please note that the vertical scale in the graphs above is country specific. China and India see many more births and deaths than the United States or Japan, as is obvious if we use the same scale for each country.

If we subtract the annual number of deaths from the annual number of births, we get a metric called natural population change. It is simply the net number of people added to or subtracted from a population through natural processes. In the United States, the natural change in population is still slightly positive: more births than deaths. In Japan, it is negative. In China, it has plummeted towards zero.

If we show that net change as a percentage of births per year (to remove some of the relative differences based on total population), you can see the pattern across the four countries. Both India and China have experienced flash recessions, but China fell faster and faster.

Thanks to data from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we can look at birth and death data over time for each US state. So, for example, we can see that natural population change was positive in most states from 2010 to 2020, with the exceptions of Maine, Vermont, and West Virginia.

(The charts below show the cumulative change each year from 2010, on the left, to 2020.)

Now compare that natural change with the general population change in each state. From 2010 to 2020, five states lost overall population (Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Vermont, and West Virginia). But in most states, the total change in population (black lines) was greater than the natural change (purple line).

Why? People moving to those states. In some cases, that migration is internal, people moving from frigid New York to warm Texas, for example. Often, however, population growth is a function of international immigration.

In 2018, I looked at data from the Census Bureau showing how all states saw a net increase in population relative to 2010 thanks to international immigration. At that time, only Connecticut, Illinois, and West Virginia had lost overall population relative to 2010. Nine other states (including New York and Vermont) had seen net population gains relative to 2010 that were only a function of international immigration. In other words, if you had removed the population change from international immigration in, say, Michigan, the state’s population would have shrunk.

UN data suggests that India saw a reduction in the number of international migrants into the country from 2010 to 2020. China and Japan each saw increases, around 200,000 in the former and 600,000 in the latter. The United States, by contrast, added more than 6 million new immigrant residents. China’s increase due to immigration was about 0.01 percent of its total population; that of the United States was almost 2 percent.

One of the reasons the annual number of deaths in the United States is increasing is that our population is aging. While one might wonder if population growth is necessarily positive (as some do), the growing need to provide tax revenue for an older population and to fill jobs left vacant by retirement suggests that the growth is far more preferable than contraction. And the United States, unlike China, has multiple strong avenues to ensure that growth.

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