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Missouri has entered ‘demographic winter,’ with more people dying than being born

Adrian Levin, of St. Louis County, visits Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery to check on the headstones of his wife's relatives. (Feb. 21, 2017)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
In 2020 and for most of 2021, more people died in Missouri than were born.

For the past year and half, more people are dying in Missouri than being born — a first in the state’s history. That demographic transition is what experts refer to as a “demographic winter.”

And the Show-Me State is not alone in this. Ness Sandoval, a sociology professor at St. Louis University, analyzed recent CDC data indicating 24 states across the country are now in a demographic winter. While Illinois as a whole is not in winter, many counties in the Metro East see the same issue.

And that’s providing a drag on the St. Louis metropolitan area. Overall, the metro is not yet in winter, but as outlying counties see death rates increase and few transplants, that presents problems for the region.

Ness Sandoval joined Thursday’s "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss what it means for the state to go through a “demographic winter.”
Lara Hamdan
St. Louis Public Radio
Ness Sandoval joined Thursday’s "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss what it means for the state to go through a “demographic winter.”

“We just assume that there will always be more babies born and people dying — that's part of human history. But we now know from looking at Japan [and] Russia that this is not the case, that you enter into what's called the ‘fifth stage’ of the demographic transition model, where more people are dying and being born — and it's come here to the United States,” Sandoval said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

The COVID-19 pandemic is part of it, but Sandoval suggests deaths from the disease have merely exacerbated existing trends.

“We call this a demographic shock,” he said. “When you have demographic shocks, there are three demographic transitions that we're concerned about: birth, death and migration. … More people are dying, but then are more people postponing births because of the uncertainty of what's happening.”

Sandoval said some things will have to change in Missouri to overcome what he calls its “demographic hurdles.”

“Population is power. And if these numbers continue, it is very possible for a state in 2040 to think about possibly losing a congressional seat — that's if you run the numbers and nothing changes,” he added.

Missouri Has Entered ‘Demographic Winter,’ With More People Dying Than Being Born

One solution is to expand the region's immigrant population, specifically its Latino population. Sandoval notes that white Missourians were in demographic winter even before 2020.

“I think we need to be more intentional, at the state level, to send a message that all Americans are welcome to move to Missouri,” Sandoval said. “We need to send this message out to states that have a ‘demographic spring,’ such as Texas [or] Arizona; you're going to grow your population by Latinos, by Asian and by Americans who identify as mixed race. That's where the growth is coming from over the next couple decades.”

Migration fueled St. Louis’ growth in the past, specifically in the 1850s, when the region had a higher population of foreign-born residents than any city in U.S. history.

“When people think about immigrant gateway cities, San Francisco comes to mind and New York comes to mind. But the story that needs to be told is St. Louis was one of the most important immigrant cities in 1850,” Sandoval said. “And that story needs to be told because as St. Louis tries to diversify, it is part of our history.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.