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Will Connecticut Sustain?

Population declines the world over pose problems at the local level

The population of Connecticut today nearly exceeds the entire population of the United States at the time of the first decennial census. For two-and-a-quarter centuries, our state and the nation could count on overall population growth. But due to factors such as the 2009 recession, the COVID-19 pandemic, global warming, and economic inequality, populations around the world are seeing unprecedented lags in birth rates. If this trend persists, there will be far reaching implications for municipal government around the state.

While this trend is worldwide, in the just released 2020 Census figures, America saw its lowest population growth since the Great Depression. In fact, population growth has been steadily declining since the 1850s. If this trend persists, the country would reach a peak population of about 361 million in 2050.

This information hits so close to home because Connecticut currently has one of the lowest fertility rates in the nation alongside many of our neighboring states in New England. According to National Vital Statistics Reports, Connecticut has seen its Total Fertility Rate (TFR) drop from 1.8 to 1.54 in the past decade. For a population to sustain itself, that number has to be 2.1.

One could easily see the ramifications in the most recent Census data. Just five towns saw an increase in total children, with some towns seeing the total children population decrease by just over a third. This all in spite of the fact that the total population of Connecticut grew by 1%.

In many towns, this information will come as no shock. Schools have had their school enrollment numbers drop for years. According to figures published in the CT Examiner, for the last decade schools around the state have “reported annual declines of about 0.5 to 1 percent.”

The effects of population decline will necessitate a reimagining of municipal forecasting. Whether it’s a 10-year Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) — which already deals with population density — or infrastructure to handle the repercussions of global warming, towns and cities are already planning into the future. If populations were to continue to decline, economic growth, population density, and more would likely fall in lock step.

What remains true is that areas with a depressed TFR will not only see a population in decline, but those areas are expected to grow older. The life expectancy in Connecticut is one of the highest in the country, almost two years longer than the average American, which a 2016 CT Mirror article says will lead to a “graying” of the economy. This could lead to an increased need for affordable housing, health care facilities and more.

At least one town in Italy referenced in a recent New York Times article on this subject was able to come up with a clever solution to two of these problems: “In Capracotta, a small town in southern Italy, a sign in red letters on an 18th-century stone building looking on to the Apennine Mountains reads “Home of School Kindergarten” — but today, the building is a nursing home.”

Globally, these changes are going to be dramatic – from that same Times article, they write that China will see its population halve from 1.41 billion to 700,000 million by 2100. That’s like losing the entire population of America, twice.

The effects in Connecticut towns and cities will not be so drastic, but the evidence is there that populations will contract over the coming decades. Residents from other states will not be a reliable salve if those states are experiencing similar trends. What remains is the fact that towns and cities will have to incorporate this thinking into their long term goals. Alongside global warming, population decline requires a complete rethinking about where we see the future of our municipalities, the state, and the world.