Sun Belt Growth Continues but Slows

texasWhile most Americans think of the Census Bureau only in terms of the decennial population count, they are actually constantly surveying the demographic trends of the country.  Their latest report — and the last before the 2010 count that will be used to reapportion the House — finds some interesting results.

  • The nation’s population as of July 1, 2009, was 307 million, an increase of 0.86 percent since July 1, 2008.
  • Texas gained more people than any other state between July 1, 2008, and July 1, 2009 (478,000), followed by California (381,000), North Carolina (134,000), Georgia (131,000) and Florida (114,000), according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates
  • California remained the most populous state, with a July 1, 2009, population of 37 million. Rounding out the top five states were Texas (24.8 million), New York (19.5 million), Florida (18.5 million) and Illinois (12.9 million).
  • Net domestic migration has slowed dramatically in many states in the South and West, including Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, South Carolina and Montana.
  • The only three states to lose population over the period were Michigan (-0.33 percent), Maine (-0.11 percent) and Rhode Island (-0.03 percent). The latter two states had small population changes.
  • Several states have negative net domestic migration, which means more people are moving out than moving in. Florida and Nevada, which earlier in the decade had net inflows, are now experiencing new outflows.

I’m not sure how one reconciles the last two points:  Michigan is the only state to lose a significant number of people over the last year — not surprising given the devastation the economic crisis wreaked on Detroit — and Rhode Island and Maine are the only states to lose population, period.  And yet Florida and Nevada have more people moving out than moving in?

Damien Cave, writing for NYT, takes the above information — which can only be interpreted as good news for the Sun Belt — and writes it up as bad news for the Sun Belt.  Headlined “Recession Slows Population Rise Across Sun Belt,” his report begins:

States in the South and the West that grew by exceptional leaps and bounds during the real estate boom of just a few years ago are now experiencing sharply slower growth in population, the Census Bureau said Wednesday.  Many of those states are still projected to gain seats in Congress after the 2010 census, however, while industrial states in the Northeast and the Midwest will most likely see their delegations shrink.

But in a sign of the recession’s power to reshape established demographic trends, the new census figures show that growth has slowed substantially in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina, while in Florida, Nevada and California, more Americans moved out than in.

As a corollary, the new data show that several states in the Northeast — like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts — are holding on to more residents.

“What we have is a decade of a roller coaster in terms of migration,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “If you look at the middle part of this decade, Florida led the country in net domestic migration. Now it’s in the negative part of the ledger.”

But we’ve seen the raw data. Indeed, Cave links to it!  And it says just the opposite of what he reports:  Florida is growing. Indeed, only three states gained more people over the last year.  Oh, and  North Carolina and Georgia and are 3rd and 4th in net growth.

Indeed, if one reads further in Cave’s own report, we see that:

In all, 17 states would be subjected to redistricting if the estimates hold in the door-to-door head count next year. Influence would generally shift from traditionally Democratic northern areas struggling with industrial decline and an aging population, to the South and the West, where independents are ascendant and disputes over immigration, taxes, and environmental issues, like water supply, tend to stand out.

Texas, for example, appears to be the big winner. It would gain three seats in Congress under the July estimate, bringing its total to 35. Between July 2008 and July 2009, it added more people from home and abroad than any other state — 231,539. That is more than Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida and Nevada, combined.

But the one-year growth figures are moving in the other direction, you see.

More broadly, however, the recession that began in 2007 has significantly slowed the great American migration toward warmth and sun. It was a move, earlier in the decade, driven as much by quality of life as easy credit, according to demographers and economists. But the reversal is nearly as striking.

State rankings prepared by Mr. Frey, based on the new numbers, show that Florida is now 45th in domestic migration growth after ranking first from July 2001 to July 2005. It lost 31,179 people to other states from July 2008 to July 2009. In terms of its total growth rate with foreign arrivals included, Florida now ranks 32nd, down from third in 2002.   Similarly, Nevada has fallen to 17th on the total growth-rate list, after leading the country from 2000 to 2004. It now ranks 36th in domestic migration, losing 3,801 people after adding more than 170,000 from other areas of the country from July 2003 to July 2006. Arizona, meanwhile, dropped to eighth in overall growth rate. Only three years ago, it was in first place.

“The population trends are obviously now being shaped by this economic decline,” said Andrew A. Beveridge, a Queens College demographer. “The places that have had a really big decline economically, the states hit most heavily by the real estate crisis, have certainly had a real decline of people showing up there.”

Who’d have guessed!

It may well be that we’ll see a reversal in the decades-long trend toward the Sun Belt.  Growth measured as a percentage on population is hard to sustain, since the base against one is being measured is larger.  And jobs do in fact shift.   After decades of migration from the South to the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, the trend reversed itself in the 1970s, as manufacturing jobs went away in competition with technology and overseas labor.  The Sun Belt, meanwhile, had evolved from an agrarian economy into a very diversified one.

Where are the jobs of the future going to be?  I don’t know.  But I wouldn’t make large bets based on one-year trends during the worst recession in several decades.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure how one reconciles the last two points: Michigan is the only state to lose a significant number of people over the last year — not surprising given the devastation the economic crisis wreaked on Detroit — and Rhode Island and Maine are the only states to lose population, period. And yet Florida and Nevada have more people moving out than moving in?

    The domestic outflow is being balanced by immigration. The way they’re calculating population is something like this:

    Net population = Starting population PLUS domestic inflow PLUS international inflow LESS domestic outflow LESS international outflow.

    Florida is experiencing a net domestic outflow, i.e. domestic outflow is greater than domestic inflow, but it can nonetheless continue to grow in population as long as the net international inflow exceeds the net domestic outflow.

    Same thing’s happening in California.

  2. ptfe says:

    Re: Florida: You seem to be ignoring the effect of birth rate on population growth. It’s possible to have more people move out than move in, but experience net population growth due to births — live births aren’t widely considered “immigration”, much like deaths aren’t considered “emigration”.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Good point, ptfe. Add “PLUS natural increase LESS deaths” to my equation above.

  4. Does anyone else find it interesting that Florida and California are in much the same position despite the fact that California is a very high income tax state while Florida has no state income tax?

    If taxes had a major impact on behavior shouldn’t we all be flocking to Florida, Texas, Washington, Tennessee and New Hampshire? I moved at one point from MN to IL in large part so that I could pocket the 5% differential in state taxes. Yet here I am now in CA, choosing sunshine over tax savings.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    There are differences between the decisions that most people might make and the decisions that individuals or businesses make. I suspect that business climate and, yes, tax policy has something to do with California’s relative decline in population and Texas’s relative increase.

  6. Richard Gardner says:

    Florida is a strange case, importing well-off 55+ retirees as a major industry, so it is tough to compare it to other states regarding fiscal policy. When folks were no longer able to sell their homes in the NE and go to FL it upset the teeter-totter balance of FL real estate with more dying than moving in. This is independent of FL’s actions. CA on the other hand …..

    It looks like about 10 Congressional seats will shift between states for the 2012 election. It looks like Western WA will gain a seat in the moderate areas. The reports I’ve seen mostly emphasize the states that will gain, ignoring those that will loose a seat (like MI).