COVID drives halt to Minnesota's population growth

Graph of annual births and deaths in Minnesota
Annual births and deaths in Minnesota, 2001-2021
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Minnesota’s population growth screeched to a halt in the past year, buffeted by COVID-19, slowing immigration rates and more people leaving the state.

Overall the state’s population grew by just 225 people in the most recent year, which ran from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. That’s the state’s slowest growth in decades. In 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota added 31,291 people.

“Population growth has been declining and is projected to decline into the foreseeable future. That part isn't a surprise,” said Susan Brower, Minnesota’s state demographer. “The surprise with this data release is the pace at which that happened.”

The growth slowdown wasn’t caused by any single factor. The state’s birthrate dipped 6 percent, while deaths — fueled by COVID-19 — shot up 14 percent, the biggest increase in decades.

Meanwhile, the rate of new immigrants to Minnesota continued a slow decline, with just over 4,000 new international migrants. That’s half the number of new immigrants from 2019, and a quarter the rate in 2016. 

Both natural increase and international migration just barely offset the flow of people leaving the state. In most years, Minnesota usually sees more people move to other states than move here from other states. But this accelerated last year, with a net loss to domestic migration of more than 13,000 people.

Graph of Minnesota population growth
Minnesota's net population growth over time, and the role that births, deaths and migration have played in shaping it.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Some of these factors might be temporary, such as the rise in deaths from COVID-19. The decline in foreign immigration to Minnesota since 2016 likely reflects national policies put in place by then-President Donald Trump to slow immigration rates.

“What we saw with the last administration was an immediate restriction on refugee populations, particularly from Somalia. [Minnesota] saw a decline because of that,” Brower said. “In addition to caps on refugee resettlement, we also saw a slowing of processing of visas.”

Other factors are more deeply embedded. Since a peak in 2007, Minnesota has seen its rate of natural population growth — births minus deaths — steadily decline even before COVID-19 hit. And it’s had a net population loss due to domestic migration in all but three of the past 21 years. 

This out-migration isn’t driven by snowbirds, either. While Minnesota does have a net population outflow among older people, its biggest loss of population in recent years is among young college-age adults.

The role of COVID-19

It’s no coincidence that Minnesota recorded its highest death rate in decades at the same time COVID-19 hit. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on weekly deaths from all causes — heart attacks, car crashes, cancer, COVID-19 and everything else — shows that Minnesota’s total death rate has spiked above normal averages at exactly the same times that reported COVID-19 deaths have spiked.

Graph of weekly deaths in Minnesota
Periods with abnormally high death rates the last two years match up closely with reported COVID-19 death spikes.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Minnesota reported more than 6,200 deaths from COVID-19 during the period from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. 

Over that same time Minnesota reported 53,578 total deaths — an increase of 6,696 above the prior year’s figures. 

Less directly, COVID-19 also appears to have had an impact on Minnesota’s birth rate, which recorded its biggest drop this century. From July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020, Minnesota recorded 66,492 total births — in line with recent trends. But the next year, Minnesota recorded just 63,065 births.

The only year this century to record a drop of more than 3,000 births was the year ending June 30, 2011, during the aftermath of the “Great Recession.”

“Typically we see birthrates drop in times when people feel uncertain about their economic future,” Brower said. “We did see that during the Great Recession. Again we saw that during COVID.”

Sometimes recessions have led to drops in birthrates, followed by baby booms when good times return and families feel more comfortable having children. But that didn’t happen after the Great Recession.

Brower said experts are still waiting to see if the U.S. sees a post-COVID-19 baby boom — but the theory that people spending more time at home would lead to more babies has been proven wrong.

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