Southern States Gain Residents the Fastest

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Southern States Gain Residents the Fastest

Editor’s note: This article is an annual update to the population change indicator for Pew's Fiscal 50 project. It was further updated on June 12, 2023, to correct the ratio of states with population loss in 2022.

Population growth in southern states outpaced all other regions in the second full year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida was the fastest-growing state for the first time since the 1950s, expanding by 1.91% between July 2021 and July 2022. Western states also gained residents, but at a much slower pace. Strong population growth can lead to a rosier economic and fiscal landscape as a growing labor force stimulates new economic activity. 

Total population in the 50 states grew twice as fast between July 2021 and July 2022 as it did in the prior year, when the nation felt the brunt of the pandemic and recorded the lowest increase in several decades. Population change is the difference between all new residents—babies and newcomers from other states and abroad—and those who died or moved away. In 2022, population growth began to rebound as births spiked and COVID-19-related restrictions eased, allowing people to flow more steadily across borders, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Florida gained residents 10 times faster than the typical state and welcomed the most newcomers—mainly from other states, but also from abroad. The next-fastest-growing states, Idaho (1.82%) and South Carolina (1.72%), similarly owe their population gains to in-migration rather than birth rates. Idaho’s influx of new residents slowed in 2022 compared with 2021, while in-migration to Florida and South Carolina accelerated from year to year. Further, southern states had the strongest population growth not only over the past year, but for at least the past two decades.

Yet overall, nearly 2 in 5 states lost residents in 2022, and growth nationally was slower than the already sluggish pace over the preceding decade. In particular, the total population of the Northeast and Midwest shrank compared with the prior year. New York and Illinois had the greatest declines, by 0.91% and 0.82%, respectively, primarily because many people moved out of those states. However, the rate of out-migration from New York slowed in 2022 compared with earlier in the pandemic, suggesting that the state’s exodus may have been a short-term reaction to the public health crisis. On the other hand, more residents left Illinois in 2022 than during the year before, accelerating the state’s population decline.

Fast-growing populations typically translate to strong labor force growth, which fuels economic activity and helps states generate tax revenue to fund any increased spending, such as for education or infrastructure. But 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 types of spending, it also means there are fewer residents to help cover the costs of long-standing commitments, such as debt and state employee retirement benefits.

State highlights

Population growth over the past year sheds light on shifts that affect near-term revenue collections and spending. Population change from July 2021 to July 2022 shows:

  • Among the 18 states where population declined over the year, losses were greatest in New York (-0.91%), Illinois (-0.82%), and Louisiana (-0.8%). Losses in these states were driven by people moving away.
  • Aside from states with declines, populations grew slower in 2022 than in 2021 in 10 states. Growth slowed the most in Idaho and Connecticut, reverting closer to their long-term pre-pandemic trends after substantial population gains during the first year of the pandemic.
  • After Florida, Idaho, and South Carolina, population grew the fastest in Texas (1.59%), South Dakota (1.52%), and Montana (1.5%). Gains in each came mostly from new residents moving into these states. Idaho, South Dakota, and Texas also recorded more births than deaths in 2022.
  • Growth accelerated in 21 states compared with 2021, led by Florida (0.8 percentage points) and Georgia (0.61 percentage points).
  • Four states continued to lose residents in 2022, but did so at a slower pace than in the previous year: California (0.62 percentage points), New York (0.34 percentage points), Michigan (0.28 percentage points), and Ohio (0.21 percentage points).

Download the data.

Pre-pandemic population growth trends

From 2010 through the start of the pandemic, population nationally grew at its slowest rate since the Great Depression, although only three states—Illinois, Mississippi, and West Virginia—lost residents. The slowdown was especially pronounced in the Northeast and Midwest, while the South and West were home to the fastest-growing states. In the first pandemic year, population growth stalled because of elevated death rates and depressed international migration. In 2022, the pace of total population growth in the 50 states was about half of what it was over the 10 years leading up to the pandemic.

The decade-long growth rates illustrate major trends that have helped shape states’ economic and fiscal conditions. A comparison of 10-year population trends, based on each state’s constant annual growth rate between April 2010 and April 2020, shows:

  • The fastest-growing states over that decade were Utah (1.7%), Idaho (1.61), Texas (1.49%), and North Dakota (1.48%).
  • Texas added the most residents over the decade, but its 10-year growth rate—which measures the constant pace that population would have to change each year, starting in 2010, to reach its 2020 count—trailed Idaho and Utah.
  • Apart from states with declines—West Virginia (-0.32% a year), Mississippi (-0.02%), and Illinois (-0.01)—the slowest population growth rates were recorded in Connecticut (0.09%), Michigan (0.19%), and Ohio, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania (0.23% each).
  • Growth was slower in the 2010s than in the 2000s in 38 states. Eight states experienced their slowest decade of growth ever: Illinois, Connecticut, Missouri (0.27%), Wisconsin (0.36%), California (0.60%), Hawaii (0.68%), Arizona (1.13%), and Florida (1.37%).

Why population change matters to state finances

State officials study population trends, in addition to other measures, to forecast revenue streams and residents’ demands for services for budgeting purposes and long-term fiscal planning. The size of a state’s population, and annual changes, also factor into how much it will receive from some federal grants.

Population trends are tied to states’ economic fortunes and government finances. More people usually means more workers and consumers adding 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. The reverse is usually true for states with shrinking or slow-growing populations. For that reason, some states have started to experiment with policy options to combat sluggish population growth. Maine, for example, is offering a tax incentive for college graduates to relocate there, while West Virginia and Vermont are offering financial incentives to attract new workers.

And demographic changes continue to capture state policymakers’ attention. In the short term, deciphering whether shifts in population are temporary or a bellwether of long-lasting changes is often difficult. For example, some of the notable patterns that occurred early in the pandemic lost intensity in 2022. New York and California stood out in 2021 for the rapid outflow of residents. Presumably, many of those migrants targeted less densely populated areas in nearby states. During the same period, population growth unexpectedly accelerated in some New England states, and Western states such as Idaho and Montana experienced sharp population increases. But in the second year of the pandemic, these shifts tapered off, although not all states have returned to their pre-pandemic trends yet.

Ultimately, the long-term trends are more important to states’ economic and fiscal conditions. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that the years-long sluggish population growth will remain tepid. Along with the pandemic’s potential impacts, growth is expected to continue to slow because of declines in fertility rates alongside higher death rates with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, and falling rates of international migration.

Population is just one factor underpinning a state’s finances, which also are shaped by policy decisions on tax collections and spending as well as factors outside a state’s borders and lawmakers’ control, such as commodity prices. To further understand the fiscal and economic impact of population change, fiscal analysts and demographers also study the shifting age and income mix of a state’s residents.

Download the data to see individual state trends from 2010 to 2022. Visit The Pew Charitable Trusts’ interactive resource Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis to sort and analyze data for other indicators of state fiscal health.

Analysis by Joanna Biernacka-Lievestro and Alexandre Fall

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