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Census shows ebb, flow

The recession altered Americans' migration. The question now: Will the changes last?

December 29, 2010|Don Lee

WASHINGTON — One of the hallmarks of the American economy has been the mobility of its people -- the speed at which they pulled up stakes to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

But the deep recession has ambushed long-running population trends, sharply slowing migration to much of the Sunbelt while giving a boost to states with more jobs and affordable housing.

Now as the recovery seems to be gaining steam, a central question is whether the population distortions caused by the massive downturn from 2007 to 2009 represent a long-term change or whether previous trends eventually will return as the economy strengthens.

The first set of data from the 2010 census, released this month, underscored the big role that economic forces can play in driving population shifts. The movement of people -- and political power -- from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West continued, with Texas gaining the most.

Yet there were significant changes within that pattern, including a dramatic slowdown in migration to California, Florida and other states that had long been among the nation's fastest-growing.

Bob Palmieri, 58, of Long Island, N.Y., doesn't plan to follow his parents, who in the 1970s were among the droves of seniors from New York and New Jersey who retired to Florida.

"I have a nice home here," he said. "I look at Florida as a place for older folks."

Those same forces will probably shape the current decade, at least the first part of it.

"Over time, the [population] numbers will reflect the rate of job growth," said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

Many Americans want to move but can't because they can't sell their homes. Others owe more than their homes are worth. And many young people, who account for the bulk of the moves, are stuck living at home, delaying marriage and having children as they contend with the sluggish economy.

Overall, the nation's population increased 9.7% from 2000 to 2010, the smallest 10-year growth rate since the decade of the Great Depression. As in the 1930s, the latest slowdown was because of fewer immigrant arrivals and a shrinking of the nation's birthrate, in part because of the economic downturn.

Without the recession, Florida might have added 500,000 residents over the last decade, said University of Florida demographer Stanley Smith. The state's 2000-10 growth rate was 17.6%, less than half the pace of the 1970s.

Smith said Florida's sunny weather and absence of a state income tax, among other factors, will help restore stronger population growth as the economy improves. But that may be a long time coming for Florida and other states such as California that leaned heavily on housing and other hard-hit industries. Home prices across the country continued to slide in October, dropping 1% overall from a month earlier, according to figures released Tuesday by Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller.

Florida's unemployment rate, 12% last month, remains one of the highest in the nation. With weak job markets -- and in Florida's case an aging population that has contributed to more deaths and a lower natural rate of increase -- analysts said such states might be looking at a persistently weaker population growth over the next decade than they have been accustomed to. That in turn could mean slower economic growth and more budget pressures on state and local governments.

Nevada and to a lesser extent Arizona also are in this camp. Their big housing busts and high unemployment curbed what had been a surging tide of jobs and residents moving in from other states.

Many of the new residents had come from California. But the recession and real estate slump limited those inflows from the Golden State -- even as the new census suggests there was a much bigger exodus of Californians in the first several years of the last decade than previously thought.

The 2010 census put California's population at more than 37 million, a 10% increase from 2000, but that was about 1.5 million fewer than estimates by the state Department of Finance.

One possible reason for this discrepancy: The surge in housing prices before the crash made it harder for nonresidents to relocate to California, while many more people in the state may have left after the dot-com bust early in the last decade, Levy said.

If California's population growth in the last decade was just average -- giving the state no new seat in the House of Representatives for the first time in 90 years -- that's largely because the state's job growth during the last 10 years was also just average.

Then there's Texas, which added more people in the last decade than any other state. As its population surged nearly 21% to more than 25.1 million this year, the Lone Star State added to its expanding economic base and its congressional delegation. The latter is a significant source of future economic vitality because of the growing delegation's ability to steer federal spending to the state.

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