Census Estimates Show Population Decline in 16 States

By: - January 21, 2021 12:00 am

Workers clean a food cart at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach. Florida is among the few states whose populations increased during the pandemic last year. Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via The Associated Press

With a perfect storm of aging residents, low birth rates, COVID-19 deaths and immigration cutbacks, 16 states saw population decreases last year as the United States experienced the slowest national population growth since the Great Depression.

The nation grew only about 7% between 2010 and 2020, similar to the previous historic low between 1930 and 1940, according to new Census Bureau estimates, which do not reflect the 2020 census counts. The agency will release the final 2020 census tally in March.

California, Massachusetts and Ohio had been growing throughout the past decade until last year, while Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania began slides in 2019. Longer-term losses continued for Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

The latest population drops could lead to economic stagnation for states. The bicoastal tech boom has been fueled by new residents, including foreign-born students and other skilled workers using immigration visas, while many smaller cities and towns depend on unskilled farm or factory labor and need more immigration to stay productive.

“Knowledge and living standards stagnate for a population that gradually vanishes,” concluded Stanford University economist Charles Jones in a September working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

New York and California, both hit early by the pandemic, had some of the biggest drops between mid-2019 and mid-2020, with New York losing about 126,000 people and California losing almost 70,000, according to annual Census Bureau estimates that are not related to the official 2020 census counts. The annual estimates are based on births, deaths, construction permits and other records.

Also, Illinois’ population slide continued with a drop of about 79,000. New York and Illinois had the largest percentage drops in population, about two-thirds of 1% for each.

The big gainers were Texas, up about 374,000 people for the year, and Florida, up about 241,000, though the figures do not take into consideration the coronavirus spikes that happened in those states after July. In percentage terms, the Mountain West states of Idaho (2.1% growth for the year) followed by Arizona (1.8%), Nevada and Utah (1.5%) grew fastest.

The national population slowdown last year may reflect the ravages of the pandemic, said William Frey, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who studies demographic changes. Deaths rose and international borders closed.

But many trends were already in place — an aging population of baby boomers, millennials postponing childbearing and cutbacks in immigration under the Trump administration. And the pandemic could have an unpredictable effect on the census count, finished under pressures from COVID-19 shutdowns.

Confusion in the count also may arise because many people made temporary moves related to virus outbreaks, but had to be counted where they were living on April 1, 2020, known as Census Day, said Frey. “You really don’t know how successful they were in getting people to say where they were on Census Day, if they even remember,” Frey said.

The results mean New York is more likely to lose a seat in Congress and an Electoral College vote, and dim California’s hopes of staving off such a loss, according to an analysis by Kimball Brace, a Virginia-based election data consultant. Alabama also is in danger of losing a seat.

Florida would get an additional seat based on last year’s growth, according to Brace’s analysis.

“The full census will give us a lot more information, but it also depends on how well the census was done,” Brace said. Some states such as California and Florida have their own estimates with higher numbers — California estimates its population at more than 400,000 higher than the new Census Bureau estimates, putting it much closer to the 500,000 it would need to keep the jeopardized congressional seat.

Florida seems to be bucking trends and gaining residents during the pandemic, said Richard Doty, a demographer for the state-funded Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. Based on new utility customers, growth was higher between March and December than during any other year of the decade, Doty said.

Some of those extra customers could be seasonal “snowbirds” who opted not to travel home for the summer, Doty said. “We also think we’ve had higher-than-expected numbers of people who can now work remotely and are either fleeing large cities or seeking warmer temperatures.”

Florida’s growth may have slowed in recent months as the pandemic hit the state harder, he added, citing slowing numbers of new driver’s licenses.

Pandemic changes, and the housing crunch on the coasts, could be a boon for heartland areas previously suffering from population stagnation, said August Benzow, a research and policy analyst at Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based economic development advocacy group.

“The middle parts of the country still have a lot of life. They might not have the attractions of coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles, but their economies are basically strong. They just need a little push,” Benzow said. “There’s really no reason why you couldn’t work for Google and live in Dayton or Rochester without having to pay California housing costs.”

California, despite its estimates of a small gain instead of a population loss last year, suffered a drastic slowdown, especially from falling immigration, rising deaths and fewer births. More people are moving away from coastal areas such as San Francisco and Los Angeles because of high and rising housing costs, said Stephen Levy, an economist and consultant who works on regional forecasts for the state’s planning agencies.

“The pandemic is horrendous, but people are not moving away based on that,” Levy said. “This is mostly about immigration.”

Immigration could rebound under the Biden administration, Levy said, including more international students and farmworkers under new, less restrictive visas, and a more welcoming attitude to tourism and refugees. But an aging population and fewer children will continue to undercut gains in California, he predicted.

California spent $100 million on census outreach leading up to last year’s count — and California officials favor more time to complete the count if necessary.

California and other states need to lobby the incoming Biden administration to give the Census Bureau all the time it needs to get a good count, said Karin MacDonald of the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, which hosts the state’s data for redistricting. MacDonald made the comments at a December conference on redistricting for state officials hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Alabama, which also could lose a congressional seat depending on the final census count, does have a budding immigrant population, some without legal status, that’s helping to boost the state’s population — though it’s growing more slowly than the country as a whole, said Nyesha Black, a demographer at the University of Alabama’s Center for Economic and Business research.

“One of the reasons our school-age population hasn’t dropped, which would create more issues, is the growth in Hispanic students,” Black said. “The reality is that it isn’t just California that’s an immigrant-receiving state. It’s Alabama as well.”

In New York, one reason for population loss is that immigrants are no longer starting out in big urban areas as they once did, said Maritsa Poros, as associate sociology professor at City University of New York.

“Immigrants have been moving directly to new destinations in the South and Midwest, states like Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee,” Poros said.

As housing costs in New York have grown prohibitive, many middle-class Black residents have joined the exodus, often choosing the South.

“The recent election results in Georgia are in some ways no surprise,” Poros added. “Texas, Florida and North Carolina have also seen gains in African Americans moving there from the North.”

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.