Sluggish economy seen dragging down U.S. population rate

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The U.S. population this year grew at its lowest rate since the Great Depression, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates Monday that suggest the sluggish economy continues to tamp down on immigration, and birth rates are still low for those already here.

The country added just 2.255 million new people between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2013, the Census Bureau reported. That’s the smallest total increase since the 1980s and, when measured against the size of the population, is less than three-quarters of a percent, or the lowest rate of growth since 1937.

“It shows the impact of the recession and its aftermath still exist,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “What we’re seeing now is really economically driven.”

North Dakota, powered by an energy boom, and the District of Columbia, which thanks to the federal government has proved to be recession-proof, led the way in growth, at 3.1 percent and 2 percent respectively.

West Virginia and Maine brought up the rear, with each losing a slight number of residents in 2013.

The Census Bureau said there were 316,128,839 people in the U.S. on July 1. A year earlier, there were 313,873,685.

Growth, which was strong at about 1 percent a year in the 1990s, has weakened substantially since the economy slipped into recession in 2008, and the prolonged weak recovery has kept things tepid. The rate appeared to have bottomed out in 2011 and ticked up slightly in 2012, but dipped again in 2013.

The last time growth was worse than this was in the 1930s, when the population grew at less than seven tenths of a percent for six straight years, from 1932 through 1937.

The Census Bureau only released the broad population estimates, not the kinds of data that would show whether the slow rate is more due to immigration or to low birth rates. Mr. Frey said be suspects both are still playing a role.

The big exception is in North Dakota, where the population has grown 7 percent since 2010 as the hydraulic fracturing energy boom has taken hold, drawing tens of thousands of new residents in search of high-paying jobs.

With growth that high, it raises questions about whether it can be sustained.

Kevin Iverson, North Dakota’s census office manager, said there’s still plenty of room to handle more expansion — though he said it will test the state.

“The question begins to become one of infrastructure: how fast can the infrastructure be constructed,” he said. “When you go to the early years of the boom there was housing stock available …. That no longer is true.”

The cold weather means pipes have to be put below ground, and it means construction only happens at certain times of the year, which limits how quickly the housing can expand to handle new residents.

Mr. Iverson said the growth is driven by employment, signaling that at least some Americans can be motivated to pick up and move if the economics work out.

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