Population Growth in Most States Lags Long-Term Trends

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Population Growth in Most States Lags Long-Term Trends

Only eight states lost residents in 2023, a sharp decline from the 19 states that had shrinking populations a year earlier. But as the nation continued to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, most states’ populations grew more slowly in 2023 than they did over the 15 years from 2008 to 2023. Population growth has been trending downward for decades.

The median population growth rate between July 2022 and July 2023 was 0.36%, twice that of the prior year. As the pandemic’s acute disruptions receded and the public health emergency officially ended in 2023, the gap between the fastest- and slowest-growing states narrowed. Death rates fell and immigration reached levels not seen since the mid-2010s.

Continuing a decades-long trend, the South was home to the fastest-growing states. Population increases in South Carolina (1.71%), Florida (1.64%), and Texas (1.58%) topped the ranks, growing about four-times faster than the national median in 2023. However, population growth slowed at least slightly in these and most other states with booming populations compared with their performance in 2022.

Although the Northeast remained the slowest-growing region, it recorded its fastest median growth rate in 12 years, a sharp turnaround from the negative growth rate just a year earlier. And in the eight states with population losses, the pace of those declines slowed in 2023 compared with the prior year. For example, New York’s population shrank the most for the fourth straight year, but it fell just half a percent in 2023 versus 0.91% in 2022 and 1.24% in 2021.

State highlights

Population changes from July 2022 to July 2023 show:

  • After South Carolina, Florida, and Texas, population grew fastest in Idaho (1.33%), North Carolina (1.3%), and Delaware (1.22%).
  • Growth slowed in 15 states in 2023, including nine of the 10 fastest-growing states.
  • Eight states continued to lose residents in 2023—New York (-0.52), Louisiana (-0.31%), Hawaii (-0.3%), Illinois (-0.26%), West Virginia (-0.22%), California (-0.19%), Oregon (-0.14%), and Pennsylvania (-0.08%)—and all did so at a slower pace than in the previous year.
  • Population grew the slowest in Alaska (0.02%), Mississippi (0.03%), Michigan and New Mexico (both 0.04%), and Vermont (0.05%).
  • Growth accelerated in 35 states, including nine of the 10 slowest-growing states.

Long-term trends

Whereas short-term volatility often obscures fundamental underlying population dynamics, long-term trends can help illuminate states’ demographic trajectories. For example, the recent uptick in annual growth rates probably reflects a post-pandemic recalibration rather than a structural shift. Faster population growth in 2023 runs contrary to the widespread slowdowns that have marred most states and the country for decades. Long-term trends are better understood through 15-year compound annual growth rates, which measure the constant pace that population would have had to change each year starting in 2008 to reach its 2023 total.

Over the past 15 years, the 50-state median population growth rate was 0.47% a year. Three states lost residents over that time. West Virginia’s population declined by just over 70,000 since mid-2008, equal to 0.26% annually. Illinois’ shrank by about 197,000, or 0.1% a year, and Mississippi lost about 8,000 people, or the equivalent of 0.02% a year.

Growth over the 15 years was especially sluggish in the Northeast and Midwest. Of the 15 states with populations that grew most slowly or that declined, all but three are in those regions.

The fastest-growing states were predominantly in the South and West. For more than a half-century, people have gravitated toward Sun Belt states, drawn by employment opportunities, as well as lower costs of living and warmer climates compared with other regions. States with fast-growing populations typically have attendant strong labor force growth, which fuels economic activity and helps generate tax revenue to fund any increased spending on infrastructure, education, and other government services necessary to meet the needs of new residents.

Long-term state highlights

A comparison of 15-year population trends, based on each state’s compound annual growth rate between July 2008 and July 2023, shows that:

  • Population grew the fastest in Utah (the equivalent of 1.68% a year), Idaho (1.66%), and Texas (1.52%). Each of these states added people at more than three times the median rate.
  • Among the top 10 states, North Dakota (1.18%) was the only one not in the South or West. The state owes its strong long-term growth rate to the mid-2010s oil boom, which attracted out-of-state workers. But in recent years, North Dakota’s population growth has been slower following a drop in oil prices.
  • Aside from the states with losses, population growth was the slowest in Michigan (0.06%), New York (0.12%), Connecticut (0.13%), Ohio (0.15%), and Pennsylvania (0.18%).

Drivers of population change

Population change is the difference between all new residents—newcomers from other states and abroad and babies—and those who died or moved away. Examining the reasons for these shifts provides insights into why a state’s population growth is trending in a certain direction.

For most of the 15 years ending in 2023, 50-state population growth was driven by natural increase, when birth rates surpass deaths. But since the baby boom of 1946 to 1964, birth rates have generally been declining and the country has aged, which together mean that migration—both domestic and international—now plays a much more significant role than in the past in whether state populations shrink or grow.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend. Because of the elevated death rates associated with the coronavirus and because birth rates already were on a downward trajectory, migration overtook natural change as the driving force behind population gains and losses nationally and in most states. And the gap widened further in 2022 after restrictions on people movement across borders ended, and immigration returned to pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, high rates of relocation from states with large metropolitan areas, such as New York and Illinois, to less densely populated states, including Montana and Idaho, contributed to an increase in domestic migration.

In 2023, population growth from natural change doubled as death rates fell nationwide with the fading of the pandemic. And although the movement of people continued to drive growth in many states, the pandemic-driven jump in domestic migration lost some of its intensity.

A look ahead

Historic trends also can help states map out the future. Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau provides an official count of state populations, most recently as of April 1, 2020. University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service uses these counts, supplemented by other Census data, to estimate how state demographics may change in the decades to come.

According to the center’s projections, growth is likely to remain tepid through 2040 with the national population forecasted to grow at about the same pace from 2020 to 2030 as the prior decade—already the slowest on record—before dropping to new lows from 2030 to 2040. In the 2020s, 31 states may face population slowdowns compared with the previous decade, and the number climbs to 45 in the next decade. The Census Bureau also projects that nationally, population growth will remain moderate at best and largely attributes that forecast to declining fertility rates combined with rising death rates as baby boomers age.

The composition of state populations by age not only helps explain the projected growth or decline in population, but also allows for a more nuanced understanding of how population shifts may affect future state budgets. Each state’s age distribution will bring a combination of risks and opportunities. For example, a state with a growing senior population may face fiscal issues ranging from drops in income and sales tax revenue to increased health care and pension costs. These types of challenges may be lessened in states that are also projected to have growing populations of 25- to 64-year-olds (e.g., Utah and Texas), which typically translates to a boost in the labor force and in the number of people who, through their taxes, help cover the public costs associated with aging residents. But an expanding working-age population may result in issues of its own, including those related to housing availability and cost.

Why Pew assesses population change

Population trends are tied to states’ finances, with demographic changes affecting both revenue and spending. More people usually means more workers and consumers contributing to economic activity as they take jobs and buy goods and services, which generates more tax revenue. A growing economy, in turn, can attract even more workers and their families.

On the other hand, a shrinking or slow-growing population can be both a cause and an effect of weakened economic prospects. Less economic activity can limit state revenue collections. And although a smaller population can lead to a reduction in some spending, it also means fewer residents are available to help cover the costs of long-standing commitments, such as debt and state employee retirement benefits. The size of a state’s population, and annual changes to it, also factor into how much it will receive from some federal grants.

Pew tracks population changes over the short and long terms to shed light on different ways that populations affect states’ fiscal conditions. In the near term, annual population shifts can affect revenue collections and spending while long-term demographic trends play a significant role in shaping states’ overall economic and fiscal trajectories. State officials study population trends, along with other measures, to forecast revenue streams and demand for services and inform budgeting and long-term fiscal planning.

Joanna Biernacka-Lievestro is a manager and Alexandre Fall is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Fiscal 50 project.

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