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Net Migration Surge Boosts Tennessee Population in 2021; Natural Change Negative

How did the pandemic affect net domestic migration in Tennessee? The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 Vintage Population Estimates shed some light on this question.

The new estimates show the state maintained a 0.8% population growth rate in 2021 as the overall population increase in the U.S. (0.1%) hit a record low. Tennessee’s population grew by 55,099 people to 6.975 million in 2021.

A sizeable jump in net domestic migration drove the state’s increases as 2021 levels surpassed the previous mid-2000s high. Annual migration totals represent the period between July 1 to June 30.

Line chart showing net migration trends between 1991 and 2021 in Tennessee

Figure 1: Tennessee net domestic migration climbed to record levels in 2021. While the annual measure shows cyclical tendencies, the decade totals are comparable over the past 30 years. Economic recessions are shown in gray.

Migration increases were tempered by a surge in deaths in 2021, which grew to 84,944. Births fell to 77,353 in the same period. This pushed Tennessee’s natural change (births minus deaths) into negative territory for the first time.

While the established trend of rising death rates and falling fertility has been in place for more than a decade, the early phase of the pandemic exacerbated both. The rise in mortality was expected; the estimates include nearly 12,000 COVID-19 related deaths that occurred between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.

There also is new research showing as many as 60,000 “missing births” across the country between October 2020-February 2021. These births, measured as the difference between actual and expected births, would have been associated with conceptions occurring between January and May 2020. While fertility rates have since returned to pre-pandemic levels, its continued decline means that the number of births will be flat or falling in the near-term.

Line chart showing births, deaths and natural change levels in Tennessee

Figure 2: Births exceeded deaths in 2021 for the first time in recent history, resulting in a natural population decrease. The other component of population change, migration, remains positive.

Bottom Line

Net domestic migration is a measure of people moving into the state minus people moving out to other states. More time is needed to understand the degree to which in-migration climbed versus out-migration fell. It’s likely fewer people are leaving the state as the U.S. saw its lowest mover rate in history, continued slowing of both in- and out- migration and housing vacancy rates sitting at their lowest level in more than 25 years. Conversely, the 2021 data could signal a slight acceleration of out-migration from other parts of the country as the south was only region of the country logging net domestic migration gains last year.

What’s becoming clearer is that migration will be the primary driver of Tennessee’s future population increases. Domestic migration is cyclical but has produced steady gains averaging 375,000 people each of the past three decades. And while COVID-19 may have precipitated the state’s first natural decrease, the larger trend of falling fertility and growing deaths predates the pandemic.

Column chart showing increasing component of population change in Tennessee

Figure 3: Slowing natural population growth and international migration make Tennessee increasingly dependent on domestic migration for population growth.

County-level estimates, including total population and components of population change, will be available on March 24, 2022.