On the lawn of her Salem home, Amy Vandegrift has installed plastic headstones, one for every thousand American lives lost to COVID-19. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregon’s population growth has been slowing for several years, but in 2020 the state hit a remarkable milestone – deaths appear to have outnumbered births for the first time on record.

That’s according to Josh Lehner, with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. Falling birth rates and an aging population had Oregon on track to have deaths outnumber births at some point – Lehner had been projecting 2025 – but COVID-19 upended things.

There were approximately 200 more Oregon deaths than births in 2020, according to preliminary state numbers. That’s close enough that Lehner cautions a final tally may ultimately reverse the finding.

And if the coronavirus pandemic recedes in 2021 (COVID deaths were down sharply in January), births will again outnumber deaths – at least for some period of time. But Oregon’s birthrate is at a 30-year ebb, among nation’s lowest.

By the Oregon Health Authority’s official tally, 1,649 Oregonians died for reasons directly related to COVID-19 from March through December last year.

That’s 4.1% of the nearly 40,000 deaths Oregon recorded overall in 2020, but COVID-19 accounts for a significant share of the 7% increase in the total number of Oregon deaths for the whole year.

The number of Oregon deaths in 2020 increased twice as fast as in 2019, and was the sharpest increase in at least 21 years.

Oregonians, like people living in other provincial states, have always lamented the costs of in-migration – traffic, rising housing costs, loss of open spaces.

In 1971, former Gov. Tom McCall famously invited tourists to visit Oregon again and again. “But for heaven’s sake,” he declared, “don’t move here to live.”

Yet Lehner and other Oregon economists have long noted that, with its birthrate declining, the state relies on smart, young migrants for much of its economic growth. If the population continues to age, and birth rates remain low, the state will grow more dependent on migration long after the pandemic has eased.

“While growing pains are real (traffic, housing, etc.) the pangs of decay are even more challenging,” Lehner wrote in Wednesday’s analysis. “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.”

This story is published with permission as part of a statewide collaboration of news organizations to share stories. Salem Reporter is part of the collaboration. 

WE GET SALEM THE FACTS. Covering your community with care and depth. Salem Reporter - fair, accurate, independent. Subscribe and support our essential local service.