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Census estimates show population decline in 16 states

Tim Henderson, on

Published in News & Features

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.


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