Census trends

next year’s us Census promises more drama than usual, thanks to some recent demographic twists resulting from the economic crash of 2008. For example, the latest estimates have the state of Florida, long dependent on the real estate and construction industries, losing population for the first time since World War II. The trend toward bigger and bigger houses also seems to have hit a wall (see figures at right).

In Massachusetts, a decades-long exodus of residents to other states has slowed down considerably (see State of the States, CW, Spring ’09), and our homeownership has continued to rise even as it’s fallen from its peak in the rest of the US (figures at right).

internal shifts

Massachusetts has been characterized by slow population growth over the past few decades; in fact, it lost population for a few years before the economic crash seemed to freeze people in place. The table below shows the biggest gainers and losers within the state.

During the 1980s, population shifted to both older cities and newer towns in the eastern part of the state outside Route 128. (Though Boston’s 2 percent increase translated into the biggest raw change, towns such as Carver, Mashpee, and Sandwich had jumps of more than 50 percent.) This phenomenon continued into the 1990s, but the biggest population losers were no longer older Boston suburbs but instead Gateway Cities too far away to take advantage of the Hub’s economy.

So far in the current decade, however, the biggest population gains have been in Boston itself and in close-by cities such as Cambridge, Chelsea, and Revere. Out-of-orbit industrial cities have continued to slump, but in the most current year available, the formerly robust Cape Cod region has started to shed people, with Barnstable, Bourne, Dennis, Sandwich, and Yarmouth all in the loss column.

What does this mean when the state, as seems inevitable, is forced to eliminate a congressional district in 2012? Based on population shifts(and grotesque lines), Barney Frank’s congressional district is a logical target for extinction; it has three of the 10 biggest losers in the state (New Bedford, Brookine, and Newton). But given his seniority in the US House, it seems more likely that mapmakers will go after John Olver (whose western district includes Pittsfield) or relieve Ed Markey of the barely growing MetroWest suburbs and put him in the same district as North Shore Rep. John Tierney.

magnet cities

Even though we’ve been losing people to other parts of the country for generations, thanks to high housing costs and low temperatures, the Bay State’s need for a highly educated workforce has always attracted people from elsewhere. But as the table at left shows, some communities have more pull than others.

The Census Bureau provides annual data on cities of more than 60,000 people, and in that group Cambridge has the smallest share of lifelong Bay Staters (33 percent of the total), with other US natives at 39 percent and immigrants at 28 percent. The first number is similar to that of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, another high-tech college city, where only 36 percent of residents were born in-state. But Chapel Hill, like much of the urban South, has a very high percentage of people from other parts of the country (48 percent) and a much lower share of the foreign-born (15 percent).

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The older industrial communities known as Gateway Cities have generally been less successful at attracting people from outside Massachusetts. Springfield is a bit of an aberration in that more than one-third of its residents come from elsewhere in the US, but almost 95 percent of the residents in that category were born in Puerto Rico. At the same time, its immigrant population (10 percent) is far lower than any other city of significant size. The result is a poorer and less diverse population than in, say, Lowell or Lynn.

The South Coast cities of Fall River and New Bedford stand out for their high percentages of Bay State natives. Still, many Gateway City equivalents elsewhere in America are even more parochial. For example, in Flint, Michigan, 76 percent of residents were born in-state, and a mere 1.3 percent were born outside the US.