Posted by: Josh Lehner | February 3, 2021

Oregon Reaches a Grim Population Milestone

I hope the pandemic progress Graph of the Week cheered you up a bit heading into last weekend because I’m here to bring you back to earth with some new data. The Oregon Health Authority just updated the monthly vital statistics — births and deaths — through December. In calendar year 2020, Oregon looks to have had more deaths than births for the first time, well, ever. Now, it’s not hugely negative. In the past 12 months, deaths outnumbered births by a bit more than 200, at least in the preliminary numbers which will change some when all the records are complete.

Unfortunately this drop was primarily driven by the number of deaths accelerating in recent months. Furthermore, births continue to remain lower than they’ve been in 30 years.

Overall, this general pattern is not unexpected. We did a three part series here on the blog a couple of years ago. In Part 1,we looked at the long-run trends and how deaths already outnumber births in most counties. In Part 2, we looked at how even during the last economic expansion the birthrate didn’t just level out, but continued to drop. In Part 3 we talked about how deaths are rising faster than you would expect with an aging population alone, in part due to the so-called Deaths of Despair. So, again, the general idea that Oregon will become increasingly reliant upon migration for population (and economic and revenue) growth is not new.

What is new is that this happened much sooner than expected; our office’s forecast expected this to begin in 2025. Now we do not have all the data on causes of death, but it’s clear that COVID has impacted the numbers. As the pandemic wanes, the number of deaths should fall as well, meaning Oregon’s natural increase in the population is not yet turning into a natural decrease on a sustained basis. That is still expected to happen in a handful of years, however, and possibly sooner depending upon what happens with birthrates. (Note that we’re still a couple of months out from the data on whether there is any sort of pandemic/shelter in place related increases in the number of births this year.)

Update 1: These trends are seen across the country. Many areas already see deaths outnumber births. We just haven’t seen it yet in Oregon, at least statewide. Where Oregon differs the most from national patterns is the strong in-migration, a very low birthrate that is one of, if not the lowest in the country, and experiencing smaller increases in drug overdoses in recent years.

Update 2: Why do we care? We care because if not for migration, Oregon’s population would decline in the years ahead. While growing pains are real (traffic, housing, etc) the pangs of decay are even more challenging. A declining population impacts the productive capacity of the economy and therefore income growth. That directly translates into lower revenue growth for local businesses, who will struggle more, and tax revenues for providing public services which will need to be cut.

Now for two major caveats.

First, keep in mind these are preliminary data that will be revised as official statistics are reported. At one point last year the preliminary data indicated there were no “excess deaths” in Oregon*. Clearly that’s no longer the case with revisions to earlier months and the acceleration in deaths late in the year. Even so, at a net -200 in the preliminary data, it is possible that future revisions will show that Oregon births ended up outnumbering deaths. We shall see.

Second, the official population estimates from our friends at Portland State are so-called mid-year estimates, or July 1st estimates. So what we really need to look at are population trends from July through June, not January through December. As such, the 2020 population estimates, which we just talked about the other week, show births did outnumbered deaths. And that’s true! At least through June, but that gap between births and deaths has been shrinking for years as seen in the first chart and in our previous posts. In terms of the large increase in deaths late last year, those will be reflected in the 2021 population estimates. Given we have only 6 months of preliminary data, whether or not we see Oregon’s first natural decrease in the official population estimates is still a bit TBD. Even so, given the broader societal trends, we know it’s certainly coming in the years ahead.

* Excess deaths are usually calculated by comparing current totals to those in recent years, something like a 3 or 5 year average in most cases. This is fine so far as it goes, especially if you have a stable population. However in a world where deaths are rising every year, these calculations will always show there are excess deaths because of that underlying trend, even if there was no pandemic. As such, accounting for the expected increase in deaths over time would lower the excess death figures. I know this is down in the weeds, but for this reason I am staying away from those types of calculations and will let the real demographers and public health experts do them.


  1. Always enjoy/read what you like and I even refer you!!!

    When do you think we reach tipping point? We can’t attract large businesses here leaving Intel/Nike which are both trending towards no growth. Compare Austin to Portland. 20 years ago, Austin was nothing but rednecks (not my perspective) and some est tech companies. Look at Portland vs Austin today.

    I’m just thinking about what happens to taxes if they leave and as you noted the population shrinks.

    • Thanks for the comment. A few things.

      First, population will only shrink if there is hardly any migration. Oregon has only seen net out-migration during the early 1980s when the timber industry restructured. Every other time in modern history, more people move into Oregon than move out of. So our office does not expect the overall population to shrink. But given these broad societal shifts are rising deaths and low birthrates, growth is increasingly reliant upon migration. Many parts of the country already see deaths outnumber births, Oregon is set to join that group in the years ahead.

      Second, Portland just completed one of the strongest economic expansions in the country last decade. Portland was Top 10 for high-wage job growth, increases in educational attainment, and household income gains. So while the region’s reputation may be down right now, we need to keep some perspective here. And of course Austin has been among the top handful of the fastest growing metros in the entire country for decades. Comparing Portland to one of the only places growing faster is certainly a tough comparison, but if we step back and look at all large metros, Portland’s certainly outperforming most, but not all.

  2. I know this is a national trend, but are we outliers from national stats in any way, regarding natural births/deaths?

    • Unfortunately we’re outliers for the low birthrate. Oregon is either lowest or second lowest last time I checked. Now to the extent 20-somethings continue to move here, and they will, that low birthrate isn’t as big of a drag on future labor force growth as you may think, but it does increase the reliance of migration even more. In a good news outlier way, Oregon’s deaths of despair have been better than national trends. We see higher rates of liver disease (drinking) and suicide, but the drug overdoses have not increased like they have elsewhere in the country.

  3. […] Source: Oregon Reaches a Grim Population Milestone | Oregon Office of Economic Analysis […]

  4. […] other main avenue for population gains, as discussed yesterday, is the so-called natural increase, or the number of births minus deaths. If we walled off Oregon, […]

  5. […] time in recorded history, there were more deaths in Oregon than there were births. It’s been 18 months since we checked in on that here on the blog. We now have preliminary vital statistics for Oregon through […]

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