The new year is off to an absolutely horrible start so far. Australia is suffering through terrifying bush fires, an earthquake struck Puerto Rico, and the president has pushed us to the brink of war with Iran by assassinating one of their top generals. We’re not even a full week in, and this year is turning out to be 2019 on steroids.
You may have missed the news that Connecticut’s population declined last year, according to Census estimates, and you’d be forgiven for that. But it’s an important story nevertheless, and it’s connected to climate change, natural disasters, and even the godawful state of world politics.
Demographics matter. Population drives everything.
Connecticut hasn’t exactly been booming this decade. More people have left than moved in for each of the past six years, and new births aren’t filling that gap. We’re lucky that our population hasn’t declined so dramatically that we’ll lose a seat in the House of Representatives; we’ll continue to have five after reapportionment in 2021. Other nearby states haven’t been so lucky. New York and Rhode Island will both be losing seats. Vermont and New Jersey also have stagnant or declining populations.
The Northeast and the Rust Belt have been losing people and political influence for some time as the population shifts south. Sun Belt states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona top population growth lists as people move to the suburbs of cities like Miami, Houston, and Phoenix. These states will continue to gain representation in Congress and in the electoral college while our own influence dwindles.
Where are we losing that population? A lot of it is coming from the cities and from rural Connecticut. Wealthier towns like Greenwich and South Windsor are still growing. This suggests that urban areas will have even less representation in the legislature after reapportionment.
All of this sounds like very good news for Republicans. After all, it’s red states and more conservative, wealthier towns that are growing at the expense of Democrats’ traditional strongholds. Republicans certainly benefited from these trends after 2010, which is why they were so dominant during the past decade. And yet as these places grow, they become less libertarian and more cosmopolitan. Democrats who move take their votes and values with them. Arizona and Greenwich aren’t solid Republican territory anymore. Greenwich is represented by Democrats in Hartford, and Arizona might very well be a swing state next year. Plus ça change.
An aging and declining population can still be a very dangerous thing, or so economists keep telling us. The old are supported by the young, and when there are far more of the former than the latter a tremendous strain is placed on public services and health care. Productivity decreases, societies become less dynamic, and the economy spirals downward.
That’s how our system works. If the population doesn’t grow, neither does the economy. If the economy doesn’t grow, everything falls apart. So we need to find ways to keep talent in the state, grow our cities, encourage in-migration … right?
Well, yes. But we also have to understand that the population won’t grow forever. In fact, it’s already starting to plateau.
The United States has always had strong population growth. But over the past 10 years that’s been slowing at an unprecedented rate. It’s not just us, either. Fertility rates are falling across the world as women forgo having babies in order to have careers and education. If current trends continue, the total population of the planet may top out around the middle of this century, and then start to decline.
The major challenge of the 21st century will be managing the devastating impacts of climate change. The fires in Australia are a stark warning that the crisis is already here and our governments aren’t prepared to deal with it yet. A shrinking population in a time where resources are strained and wide swaths of the country and the planet may become more difficult to survive in would be a blessing in disguise.
Our ideas about population and growth are about to change radically. And hey, if there are a lot of people who need to move from the heat and storms of the sunbelt back to more temperate climes, we’ll have room.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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