By Carol Morello
Thursday, December 24, 2009; A01
After decades of rapid growth in which housing developments sprouted in swamps, farmland and deserts, the number of Americans moving to several states in the South and the West has slowed sharply because of the recession and housing bust, according to Census Bureau figures released Wednesday.
The longtime magnets of Florida and Nevada, which had benefited most as people fled the dreary cold of the Northeast and Midwest, saw more Americans move out than move in during the year that ended July 1. California also had a net loss of so-called domestic migrants, although in all three states the impact was blunted by immigration from other countries and by natural growth because of births.
The state population figures foreshadow a political realignment that will occur after the 2010 Census, which is used to determine the reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Texas, which had the biggest population growth last year, 478,000 people, is among the states that stand to gain seats, and states in the Northeast and Midwest could lose.
The economic downturn and the upheaval it has spawned are creating an unusual set of challenges for next April's national count. Foreclosures and job losses have caused many to give up their homes and move in with friends and family, and Census Bureau officials fear that those people could be undercounted. As the latest data suggest, hard times have led many people to abandon once-booming locales, and increasing numbers of others to stay put, when they cannot sell their houses or land new jobs.
The economy has also reshuffled the growth rates of states, transplanting some onto the losing side of the ledger for the first time in recent memory, according to William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution.
Arizona, for example, was ranked in the top five states in population growth every year of this decade, until this past year. Just 15,000 Americans moved into the state, down from 55,000 the previous year. Georgia's growth rate, usually about 2 percent, has been cut in half.
Conversely, the District's growth rate of 1.6 percent almost tripled from the previous year. Virginia gained 87,000 people, more than half of them new residents. Maryland's population grew by 41,000, but the state had a net loss of 11,000 domestic migrants. That was offset by about 20,000 people who moved to Maryland from other countries.
California and New York had repeatedly been in contention for losing the most American residents to other states; both states are now losing fewer residents than before.
But it is Florida and Nevada that had the most stark reversals of fortune. In the first half of the decade, they were usually among the top five in both population gain and growth rate. They now rank among 23 states that are losing more Americans than they gain.
These annual estimates are not an exact count. Although the census estimated that Florida gained 114,000 people last year because of immigration and births, researchers at the University of Florida said they thought the population had actually declined for the first time since the end of World War II, when many military personnel based in Florida left the state to go home, said Stan Smith, head of the school's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Even so, the increase is the smallest since 1949, he said.
"Florida was a state people moved to," said Frey, adding, "It was a growth machine, and it just sort of stopped."
Nevada's population would have been virtually stagnant last year, if not for 11,000 newcomers from other countries who more than offset the net loss of 3,800 American residents.
Both states have built their economies around growth, and their state budgets are in dire straits.
"From Florida's point of view, it's cataclysmic," said Isaac Eberstein, director of the Center for Demography and Population Health at Florida State University. Florida has no personal state income tax, only taxes on sales and property, Eberstein noted. "We've shifted all taxes onto the people coming in, whether new residents or tourists," he said.
Smith said he expects that the state's population growth will pick up when the economy improves, although probably at a lower level. Baby boomers will retire soon, and the state should continue to attract immigrants from Latin America, he said. But birth rates are expected to decline, and other states are aggressively competing to attract retirees.
"I think it's more of a temporary blip than a permanent change," Smith said. "But temporary doesn't mean really short-lived."
Nevada faces hurdles as it tries to return to the growth rates of 3 to 4 percent that it enjoyed throughout most of the decade. Last year, its population increased just 1 percent.
Nevada State Demographer Jeff Hardcastle said legalized gambling in other states and on Indian reservations has ended Nevada's onetime monopoly on casino gambling, and rising fares for travel to the state are drags on any recovery.
"I used to joke a 3 percent growth rate in Nevada was considered a recession," Hardcastle said, with no humor discernable in his voice. "I don't think anybody was fully expecting this to happen. And I don't think anybody has a good handle on what's going to happen next."