COVID-19 deaths drive N.J. population loss

Latest census counts show the pandemic’s toll, not just in the Garden State but countrywide.

Visitors sit among white flags that are part of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's

File photo: In this Sept. 21, 2021, file photo, visitors sit among white flags that are part of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's "In America: Remember," a temporary art installation to commemorate Americans who have died of COVID-19, on the National Mall in Washington (Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight

New Jersey’s population dipped slightly between 2020 and 2021, while Hudson County saw one of the biggest drops for any county in the nation.

A big reason: COVID-19 and the people it killed.

Annual population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday show a drop of 0.2%, or about 22,000 people, statewide between the official 2020 census count of April 1, 2020 and the July 1, 2021 estimate. That brings New Jersey’s population to 9.27 million.

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More than a third of all states lost population. Half of all states recorded more deaths than births as a result of the pandemic, though in some of those an increase in people moving in made up for that and led to an overall population increase.

“The annual increase in deaths in 2020 was the largest in 100 years,” states a blog post by the bureau. “Prior to the pandemic, mortality patterns were predictable. Deaths had been increasing slowly but steadily. Additionally, mortality followed a seasonal trend, peaking in the winter months. Over the past two years, COVID-19 has disrupted these patterns and it is unclear when or if the regularities of pre-pandemic mortality will return.”

A grim reckoning

Overall, more people were born in New Jersey than those who died. But the state reported fewer births while it had more deaths in the 12-month-period ending July 1 than in previous one-year periods. And New Jersey and New York were the only two states in the Northeast in which births outnumbered deaths by a small amount. Between mid-2018 and mid-2019, natural population — births minus deaths — grew by about 24,000. From 2020 to 2021, that increase was less than 4,700.

In total so far, COVID-19 has killed more than 33,000 New Jerseyans.

In past years, international immigration had mitigated the numbers of people leaving New Jersey, but that has slowed. COVID-19 further impacted the number of people relocating to New Jersey and to the United States from other countries. During the 2010s, more than 33,000 immigrants a year settled in New Jersey on average. Between mid-2020 and mid-2021, only about 10,000 immigrants moved in, while close to 28,000 New Jerseyans moved out.

People moving out of state also helped drive the small population loss. While this new census data does not show where people moved to, national trends indicate people are moving to the South and Midwest.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to amplify existing trends of decreasing births, increasing deaths and slowing international migration, shifts in the remaining component — domestic migration — have become more prominent and are noticeably altering county growth patterns across the nation,” the census blog post states.

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Hudson county hit hard

That’s what happened in Hudson County. The fastest-growing county in New Jersey during the past decade, the state’s fourth-most populous county saw New Jersey’s biggest population loss — and the 10th largest of any county in the nation — from the 2020 census count to July 1. According to the latest estimate, Hudson County lost more than 22,000 residents or 3.1% in that 15-month period.

Part of that may be attributable directly to the pandemic, specifically “20-somethings” who moved back home with their parents, said James Hughes, a Rutgers University professor who is an expert on demographics, housing markets and real estate development.

“Probably a lot of the Hudson County younger millennials came from New Jersey so their parents were close,” he said. “They’re not going to stay with their parents very long. They’ll go back.”

But others who moved out were millennials who had begun to raise a family or wanted to do so and wanted more space, Hughes continued. The pandemic gave them the impetus to finally make the move and that brought a snowball effect.

“It became a herd mentality,” he said. “If several of their friends started moving to the suburbs, I guess it was fear of being left behind.”

Trending before COVID-19

Max Herman, chair of the sociology and anthropology department at New Jersey City University, said the trend of young families moving out of densely populated Jersey City and Hudson County had begun shortly before the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“A lot of the businesses that made the city attractive to middle-class and upper-middle-class people, many of those began to disappear,” he said, referring to restaurants, cafes, gyms and nightlife that all shut abruptly that spring when Gov. Phil Murphy put the state on lockdown. Some have never reopened.

“And schools closed down for a long period of time, so parents were stuck at home with their kids in cramped apartments with very little to do with the children and they started looking for green space … People began to do the math and began to realize that they could rent a home in a suburban community not far away and it would be cheaper than what they were paying for their one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment in the city,” Herman added.

Herman said the decline is not likely to be permanent but could take time to reverse and it will depend on companies requiring their workers to go back into the office.

“In order for the residential market to fully recover, first there’s going to have to be a recovery in the commercial market, and that means more people going back to work in offices,” he said. “The advantage of Jersey City, for example, was always that it was a short PATH ride to New York City. And that makes sense if you still have to go to the office. If you don’t have to go to the office, then why do you want to live in a densely populated neighborhood that lacks some of the space and the amenities that you can get by moving to the suburbs?”

A vibrant business community also bolsters restaurants, bars and cultural offerings that will draw people back to the cities, “but that’s going to take time,” Herman added.

Ocean County rising

One county that continued growing unabated despite the pandemic was Ocean County. After rising consistently throughout the past decade, Ocean’s population rose again by 1.8%, or 11,769, from the 2020 census count to July 1, 2021. The fastest-growing county in the state, Ocean’s population now stands at close to 650,000. People moving into Ocean County accounted for most of the increase, as births barely outpaced deaths. The thriving Jewish community in and around Lakewood has been a major draw.

“We don’t have the origin and destination data, but we know a lot of it’s coming from Brooklyn to Ocean County,” Hughes said. “The economy keeps growing there — all types of activity, even some new office buildings in Ocean County — so it’s a pretty strong trend. I see no reason why it would stop.”

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