Unicoi and Washington counties saw a small increase in births last year, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Tri-Cities off the region’s slippery slope of the births v. deaths.
According to the Census Bureau’s components of population change report, there were seven more births in Unicoi County and three more in Washington County than there were during the 12 months ending in July 1, 2016. Sullivan was the only county that had a decrease in the number of deaths.
But when area counties totals are compared, there were 1,226 more deaths than births. That’s a trend that has been around for a long time in our part of the state and one that is getting a little more attention these days as businesses, and civic leaders are looking harder at the changes an aging demographic imposes.
Currently, about 29 Tri-Cities residents turn 65 every week and if the population projections hold by 2028 one in every four area residents will be over 65. The region’s aging tsunami has peaked yet. That happens sometime in 2028 – a few years before it crests across the United States. So, some of the local cultural, business and economic challenges now playing out in the Tri-Cities will be on the national front in a couple of years.
If you compare the population loss created by the births v. deaths imbalance you’ll see it has dramatically increased in just the last seven years. The Census report for 2011 shows 457 more deaths than births. By 2017 deaths outnumbered births by 1,226.
Looking at the issue on a county basis shows what you would expect. The counties with an overall older population base have more deaths. And although Unicoi had more births in 2017 than in 2016, its population declined by 111 when deaths v. births were factored into the equation.
Washington was the only county with a net natural population gain.
The bottom line is the Tri-Cities – like the United States – has a baby-making problem. The most current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports shows the 2017 U.S. birth rate dropped 2% from 2016. It was the lowest birth rate the nation has ever recorded.
Experts put the primary blame on the 2008 recession – when the economy shrinks people most people opt to have fewer children – and the crippling costs of going to college. Economists are ringing the alarm bell about what this trend will do the future labor force and economy.
Kathy Bostjancic, an economist at consulting firm Oxford Economics, told the Associated Press that falling birth rates have already had a crippling effect on the U.S. economy over the past 10 years because there are fewer Americans working or looking for work. The impact is equivalent to a 0.7% drag on the U.S.’ long-run growth rate, she said.
That’s a situation the Tri-Cities is already dealing with.
The four-county Kingsport-Bristol Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has seen four straight annual real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline, and after a couple of small gains, the three-county Johnson City MSA dipped into negative territory. Neither economy has recovered to their respective pre-recession highs. Updated GDP numbers on the local level will be available later this year.
It’s not really a new issue. Birth rates have been ebbing since the 1970s throwing the local and national replacement level out of what. The replacement level is the rate at which new births keep the population steady by matching the number of people who are dying. The bottom line for that trend is as the older generations age out of the workforce, the ratio of retirees to working people becomes progressively skewed. Unless balanced by technology that’s a productivity killer and less productivity means a shrinking economy.