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.

“It would not be nearly as dramatic here if the rest of the country wasn’t where it’s at,” Mr. Iverson said. “The truth is you’re seeing a lot of younger individuals — 19 to 34 — migrating to the state of North Dakota for economic opportunities.”

The District of Columbia, meanwhile, is seeing the same sort of increase that other big cities are enjoying. Quality of life, availability of housing and amenities are attracting people to downtown areas, while suburban areas are still struggling in the sluggish economy, Mr. Frey said.

“You look at North Dakota and D.C., I think under any circumstances neither of them are bellwethers for the nation,” Mr. Frey said.

Some demographers had expected this to be the year that Florida overtook New York as the third-largest state in the country, but the Empire State managed to delay that until at least 2014, growing by 75,000 and keeping ahead of Florida.

Still, another year of growing more than 200,000 and Florida will take over, in another signal of the shift away from the Northeast and Midwest and to Sunbelt states.

In total numbers, Texas was the fastest-growing state, adding 387,397 residents in 2013. California added 332,643, for second place.

As for next year, the Census Bureau said there will be a birth every 8 seconds and a death every 12 seconds in the U.S.

Worldwide, there are 4.3 births every second and 1.8 deaths. The population on Jan. 1 will be 7.138 billion, or 1.1 percent higher than it was a year earlier. India led all countries in growth, with 15.6 million new people in 2013.

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