Deaths outpaced births in Arkansas from 2020 to 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, for a variety of reasons, including the covid-19 pandemic, an aging population and where people choose to raise families and to retire.
Despite losing 3,236 residents to what’s called “natural population change,” the state’s overall population continued to grow in the same time period, adding 13,659 residents.
The 11 counties that saw more births than deaths were mostly in populous regions of the state: Benton, Craighead, Crittenden, Faulkner, Lonoke, Madison, Pulaski, St. Francis, Sebastian, Sevier and Washington counties.
Statewide, there were 38,257 deaths from July 2020 to July 2021 and 35,021 births, according to census data.
Deaths tend to outnumber births in natural population change trends, said Alison Wright, head of the Census State Data Center within the Arkansas Economic Development Institute at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“What’s different this year is death numbers are going to be a lot higher due to some of the deaths from covid-19, [but] it’s not all that,” Wright said.
Arkansas’ overall population grew from 2010 to 2020, according to census data released in August. The state added 95,606 residents, climbing from 2,915,918 to 3,011,524. However, data released by the Census Bureau in May indicates that more than 150,000 additional Arkansans — up to 5% of the population — went uncounted during a difficult census year in the height of the pandemic.
The Central Arkansas and Jonesboro metropolitan areas recorded growth, while cities and counties throughout the Delta took some of the largest population hits, according to the 2020 data.
Without the boost of 105,800 people in Northwest Arkansas, the state’s most rapidly growing region, the state would have experienced its first drop in population since the 1960 census.
Benton and Washington counties had the state’s most births over deaths, 294 and 257, respectively, keeping with the region’s ongoing growth over the past decade, according to census data.
Garland and Baxter counties had the state’s most deaths over births, with 627 and 539, respectively. Both areas are popular retirement locations.
The differences between births and deaths did not decide several counties’ overall population changes, according to the data. For instance, Pulaski County lost 1,252 people from July 2020 to July 2021 but had 74 more births than deaths, while Saline County gained 1,552 people but had 109 more deaths than births.
The U.S. Census Bureau collects birth and death data from state health departments, calculating each at the county level.
From 2000 to 2010, growth in the six-county Central Arkansas metropolitan area was fueled by migration more than by births outnumbering deaths, but census data from 2010 to 2020 show a reversal, with natural growth outpacing migration into the region by 29,384 to 18,890.
“If this is a reversal and if it continues, something has qualitatively changed,” said Jonathan Lupton, a senior planner for Metroplan, the transportation planning agency for Central Arkansas. “It’s possible, but it’s too early to know.” Wright noted that births in Pulaski County have usually outpaced deaths to the point of creating a net population gain, but that changed from 2020 to 2021.
“People have been moving out of Pulaski County, so we know that’s happening, but we’ve always had enough births over deaths to cover all that,” Wright said.
Faulkner and Saline counties both have seen people moving in, according to the data, and overall migration made up for Saline County having more deaths than births from 2020 to 2021.
Due to a lower cost of living, Saline County has long been a bedroom community for people who work in Pulaski County, though local leaders are working to create more jobs in Saline County, said Lamont Cornwell, executive director of the Saline County Economic Development Corporation.
“A safe place to live is becoming more and more important to people, and you see more and more people moving into the peripheral areas of urban America, and that’s where we are,” he said.
Cornwell also said Saline County’s schools are a draw for new residents who want to raise children there.
Phillips County is a different story, said Mayor Kevin Smith of Helena-West Helena, the county seat.
Even though Arkansas’ 2020 census undercount was the highest in the country, with five other states also significantly undercounting their residents, this does not necessarily mean there were no notable population losses in areas with recorded population declines, such as the Delta, Smith said.
Phillips County had 19 fewer births than deaths and an overall loss of 539 people from 2020 to 2021, according to census data. The change resulted from an intersection of migration with births and deaths, since the county draws retirees and empty-nesters, while young adults who want to have children move elsewhere, mostly for better schools, Smith said.
“When couples get to the point where their children are 3 or 4 years old, or they’re thinking about planning a family, they start looking elsewhere because they don’t think they have good educational options here,” he said. “That’s one reason. It’s an economic development issue.”