The U.S. Census Bureau released some big news last week, namely that hurricane-ravaged St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana has transformed itself from the national leader in population loss to the national leader in population gain (as a percentage of its total population) as its denizens return and rebuild. The census numbers, which track population change at the county level from July 1, 2006, to July 1, 2007, don't all bear good news. While the West shows continued growth, the Midwest is struggling to keep up, especially in rural areas that don't attract, as demographers say, "domestic migrants," a.k.a. Americans in moving vans. But no region has flat-lined like the country's historical epicenter, the Northeast. Kenneth M. Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey Institute and author of more than 150 articles and reports on population trends, takes U.S. News behind the numbers. Excerpts:
Rhode Island suffered the worst population loss in the country. And New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Vermont all showed some of the lowest growth last year. What's happening in the Northeast?
The Northeast, especially New England, is certainly growing more slowly than the U.S. as a whole. That's because the northern part especially—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont—don't get as much immigration as the other parts of the country. In many areas of the country, immigration is offsetting the loss of domestic migrants, if you will. Those states are dependent primarily on domestic migration.
This sounds similar to what's happening in parts of the Midwest.
It's similar. When you get into rural parts of Iowa and Nebraska, they have many counties where more people are dying than being born. The difference is that in significant areas of New England, there is domestic migration.
How can New York State be so low in growth (0.1 percent) when New York City is a huge magnet for Americans and immigrants alike?
Outside of the New York metro core, New York experienced a real difficult time. New York State is heavily industrial. There has been significant population loss from what had been traditionally manufacturing counties. One thing that's not well recognized is a larger part of the rural workforce works in manufacturing than urban. So those areas spread across New York, Pennsylvania, parts of New England, those areas have experienced difficult times and out-migration over the last year.
Hot growth spots across the country also cooled off.
It's probably because of the housing crunch. Areas that had grown very fast, even areas like Maricopa, Ariz., where Phoenix is, [have slowed down]. So any place that depends on a significant domestic migration for growth didn't do as well in 2006 and 2007 as it did historically. Places being hurt by domestic out-migration didn't do as badly, either. Cook County, Ill., home to Chicago, may have gained population. The primary reason is domestic migration loss slowed down because fewer people were leaving because of the housing market.
The fact that people are having trouble buying or selling homes is reflected in population change data?
This new data really has a lot of stuff going on. It ends at July of 2007, so only the beginning of the housing [credit crisis] is reflected in this data. Another year of it, and I think we're going to see some pretty dramatic changes. There are about 300 "recreational" counties in the United States. Out of all the rural counties, the recreational counties are growing fastest, but that has slowed, too, because of home sales.
With all the talk about urban renewal, do these numbers affirm that more Americans are moving from rural areas to cities?
Let's talk about longer than just 2006 and 2007. You're seeing population losses at both extremes, in the biggest, densest urban cores and the most remote rural areas. The growth rates tend to be the highest in the suburban areas and the rural areas just outside the urban areas.
So urban renewal is more fiction than fact?
You hear that people are flooding back into urban cores. Domestic migration is the indicator that that's not happening. If you look at age-specific migration data, you would see big influxes of 20-to-29-year-olds into Boston, New York, Chicago. But then you'll see a big exodus of 30-to-39-year-olds because now they have children or they want to buy a house. That's the outward stream that's pressure into the suburbs.
What does this data tell us about immigration?
Immigration, though it looks to slow down a little bit, is continuing, and it's spreading out. Rural areas that have lost population for quite a while may be growing again because of Hispanics moving in. Irrigated agriculture and...meatpacking plants need tons of workers. Not only do they come themselves, they bring the potential for children pretty soon. That contributes to growth, too. In some rural areas, immigrants are producing growth where there would otherwise be decline.