Population gains at near-historic lows

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post - Downtown Washington, viewed from the roof of a building near the National Cathedral.

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The population of the United States is growing more slowly than it has since the Great Depression in what demographers say is a reflection of the recession’s lingering effects on people’s behavior.

New population estimates released Monday by the Census Bureau show the nation added about 2.2 million residents in 2013. On New Year’s Day, the census projected, the U.S. population will surpass 317 million people, a one-year increase of 0.7 percent.

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Two states -- Maine and West Virginia -- suffered a net loss of residents over the past year.

The last time the nation grew at a slower pace was in the heart of the Great Depression, from 1932 to 1937, according to an analysis by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution.

The recession led more women to postpone childbirth and fewer immigrants to come seeking jobs. As a result, the nation’s growth rate, which was just shy of 1 percent as recently as 2006, began sliding after the recession began the following year. With the economic downturn officially over for four years now, some demographers expressed surprise that the population growth rate registered a decline.

“Economists think the recession is over, but it’s not, for demographic trends,” said Ken Johnson, a demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. “We should see growth going up.”

Population estimates for individual states offered another hint that large numbers of people have not reverted to boom-time habits. More people are moving to different states than they were in the depths of the recession, when they stayed put because they couldn’t sell their homes or find new jobs requiring a move. But state-to-state moves have not returned to pre-recession levels, and half the states in the country are growing at a slower rate than they did last year, Frey said.

“They’re doing better than they were in the really bad years, when they were in free fall,” he said. “But you would have hoped the trajectory would go up, and it hasn’t. From a demographic perspective, we’re not going full throttle yet.”

Florida, for example, added 230,000 residents. But it failed to surpass New York state, which gained only 75,000 residents, in total population. That keeps Florida in fourth place behind California, Texas and New York. Some demographers had predicted the recession’s end would propel the long-anticipated switch to happen this year.

Maine and West Virginia lost population, largely because more people died than were born. Though both have experienced the phenomenon before, Johnson said the trend was exacerbated by lower birth rates during the recession.

Several demographers said the nation’s growth rate will probably pick up, but only when more people believe the economy is improving.

“Sure, we’re out of the recession in the way the National Bureau of Economic Research defines recession,” said Steven Ruggles, a historical demographer who is director of the Minnesota Population Center. “But that’s kind of irrelevant because of the distributional problem. The recession is not over for the vast majority of the population. It’s over for the top.”

During the recession, the District attracted many young adults who moved to Washington when jobs were scarce elsewhere. That growth continued in the past year.

The city gained population at a robust pace of about 2 percent, though a bit less than in previous years. It added 13,000 residents between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2013, the Census Bureau estimated. With more than 646,000 people, the District is bigger than it has been since the 1970s.

But it was the second year in a row that the growth rate dipped. The city’s population rose by 13,800 the previous year and by 14,500 in the year before that, according to census figures.

In a statement issued Monday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said the latest census estimate shows that the city continues toward its goal of adding 250,000 residents within 20 years.

“The new population estimate demonstrates that the District continues to be one of the most attractive and competitive cities in the nation,” Gray said.

City Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said the population boom is driven by young people who prefer the liveliness and transportation options a city offers over a suburb.

“The livability of the city, the safety of the city and the choices in the city are better every year, and people are excited to be here, come here and live here,” she said.

Margery Turner, senior vice president of the Urban Institute, said the slower growth rate should be a concern.

“As we turned into the 21st century, we would have been flabbergasted to imagine these numbers,” she said.

Many of the District’s newcomers are younger, white and relatively affluent, and Turner said the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening.

“A growing city with a growing economy is a better place to be living, governing and working than a city that is hemorrhaging population,” she said. But, she added, “as newcomers with resources push up prices for a lot of things, and to some extent crowd out nonprofit organizations and businesses as well as housing that used to exist in neighborhoods, is the change benefitting longtime residents, and residents of all races and income levels as well as it could?”

Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, said that many lower-income residents have been forced to leave the city in search of affordable housing in the suburbs.

“We’d like to see the city’s population growing, and everyone who wants to stay, can stay,” he said.

The census figures also show that Maryland gained about 44,000 residents, passing 5.9 million people. Virginia gained 74,000 residents, bringing its total to more than 8.25 million people. Both population gains represent an increase of less than 1 percent.

 
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