More Whites Die Than Are Born in One-Third of States
Trend is reshaping the social, political and economic landscape of the U.S.
(WSJ/Adamy) 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 result is a rapidly changing country where fault lines around social programs are expected to shift as Republican president-elect Donald Trump moves into the White House. Older white Americans are becoming increasingly reliant on Medicare and Social Security, while younger minority groups are making up a greater share of those tapping job training and the U.S. education system.
“The fact that this was going on in states that contain such a substantial part of the U.S. population stunned even me,” Mr. Johnson said. “We’re probably going to see it in several more states” in the years to come.
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.
Mr. Trump defied political demographers’ expectations when he beat Hillary Clintonearlier this month because many had forecast that the growing share of the U.S. population that is Latino, black and Asian—groups that tend to favor Democrats—would grease the path for the Democratic presidential nominee. His ability to build a winning coalition anchored by white voters is causing both parties to re-evaluate how they capitalize on the country’s shifting demographics.
States like Florida, with its stable of retirees, have watched white deaths outpace births since the end of the last century. Others, such as Mississippi and New Hampshire, began to see their white populations shrink only in the past few years.
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.
Compounding that is the fact that this smaller group is also having fewer babies than previous generations. The 2007-09 recession drove down the country’s fertility rate as strained finances made couples leery of having children. That rate has yet to rebound to the levels that demographers had expected, and some experts say those women may never have the expected number of babies.
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%.
The uptick in white deaths has caught the attention of the Obama administration, which dispatched Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to address an epidemic of opioid and related drugs that is decimating rural communities. In an interview, Secretary Vilsack said that struggling rural economies are partly fueling such deaths, though new programs are helping some areas turn the corner.
“It’s a reflection of an economic reality that’s been occurring in this country for a considerable period of time,” he said. To tackle opioid deaths, the administration is expanding prevention and treatment efforts, including training doctors to prescribe fewer opioids, widening access to lifesaving opioid antidotes and funding the expansion of treatment facilities.
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