Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
National population growth has fallen to 1937 levels. But jobs and affordable living continue to attract people to certain parts of the country.
U.S. population growth is at its lowest point since the Depression Era. But that slowdown isn’t apparent everywhere. In the Sun Belt states, economic revival has lured workers from other parts of the country, actually strengthening the population growth rate.
According to a new analysis of recent Census data by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, the nation’s annual population growth has dropped to 0.7 percent—the lowest rate since since 1937. While the growth rate has risen and fallen at various points over the decades, it had stayed above 0.9 percent until the 2008 recession. The subsequent decline in fertility rates has contributed substantially to this latest drop. But while fertility might pick up as the economy strengthens, it’s the continued aging of the U.S. population and the high death rates that could slow down growth to an estimated 0.5 percent by 2040. Immigration to the country, which also declined with the recession but has now started inching up, is the main reason the population is growing at all.
But in many parts of the country, the opposite trend is playing out. Western states like Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona are at the top in the list of states with the highest population increases in 2015-2016, each experiencing above a 1.6 percent growth rate. Growth is also picking up speed in the District of Columbia and Southern states like Texas, Georgia, Florida, and North and South Carolina.
On the other end of the spectrum, Illinois lost the largest number of people of any state, continuing a three-year trend. Northeastern states including New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Vermont also experienced losses. North Dakota, which had the highest growth rate in the country a year ago at 2.29 percent, saw it fall to 0.15 percent. Because of the collapse of its oil economy, it’s no longer the prime destination for workers. Via Bloomberg News:
Now, amid the worst bust in a generation, North Dakota’s economy is shrinking, employment is falling fast, and the state is imposing the deepest spending cuts in its history to help plug a $1 billion budget deficit. “Quite simply, the North Dakota economy has been devastated by the dramatic drop in oil prices,” says Karl Kuykendall, an economist at the market research and energy consulting firm IHS.
The example of North Dakota shows the importance of migration in driving local population changes. It is the main reason explaining the divergent trends in the Snow Belt states versus the Sun Belt. Check out Frey’s graph illustrating how people are moving out of the former into the latter:
States like New York, California, and Illinois, which have been traditional destinations for workers seeking opportunities, are now no longer regarded as such to the same extent. New York, for example, saw 91,000 residents leave right after the recession. In 2015-2016, it lost 191,000. Instead, folks are headed toward Texas, which was doing well during the downturn, and continues to be a hub of economic activity. They’ve also been fanning out to Washington, North Carolina, Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada, where jobs have grown since the recession and living is much more affordable.
Frey concludes that “overall, the United States seems to be in the midst of a population growth paradox.” But that folks are ready to move to wherever jobs crop up in the country is ultimately a sign that better economic times are upon us.