Sense of Loss

Population drop may have been a fluke, but slow growth has its costs

By Robert David Sullivan

Coming at the end of a year when Massachusetts had more than its fair share of the national spotlight (thanks to football, baseball, and presidential politics), it was disconcerting to learn that we were the only state in the US to lose population from 2003 to 2004. That was the second consecutive year that we were at the bottom of the heap, according US Census Bureau estimates: We gained 12,000 people in 2003, but every one of the 49 others states grew at a faster rate.

We’ve been in this situation before. Massachusetts lost population according to the 1991 and 1992 population estimates, but we recovered later in the decade and posted a 5.5 percent gain from 1990 to 2000. (The national gain was 13.2 percent.) Still, it’s not a safe bet that we’ll turn things around again this decade. The losses of the early 1990s coincided with a deep recession that hit New England especially hard. The more recent loss came as the state was climbing, however slowly, out of the trough in the economic cycle, so it’s by no means obvious that people will have a reason to return to the Bay State any time soon.

“Good!” That’s what some people say when I tell them about these statistics. Many of them dream of less congested highways and pray for a stop to development in their neighborhoods. (See Head Count, page 36, to see which cities and towns have stopped growing.) Economists have not been as sanguine. “The fact is, people are leaving the state because they can’t get work,” Paul Harrington, of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, said to State House News Service in December. “That’s what this is about.”

It’s also about housing. According to a January poll by the University of Massachusetts’s Donahue Institute, 46 percent of all Bay State residents are considering leaving the state because of the high cost of housing, up from 11 percent in 1999. The figure was 53 percent among adults aged 18 through 34. That poll cannot have escaped notice by employers considering a move to—or out of—the Bay State.

‘People are leaving the state because they can’t get work.’

ince the founding of the US, only 18 states have ever lost population from one decennial Census to the next, beginning with Maine and New Hampshire in 1870. And once tagged with it, the laggard label appears to be hard to shake. Sixteen of those 18 states registered below-average population growth from 2000 to 2004—the exceptions being Nevada, now the fastest-growing state, and New Hampshire. (Put another way, only two of the 19 states now experiencing above-average growth have ever lost people since being admitted to the union.) In some cases, a state with a net loss manages to register a tiny gain by the time of the next head count—only to slide back into the losers’ column a few years or decades later. Iowa, Mississippi, and both Dakotas have all gone through this down-up-down cycle.

Despite the popular notion that Americans flee from urban areas, almost all examples of population loss throughout American history have been in sparsely populated states. Even now, the 10 most states with the highest percentages of people living in rural areas (including Vermont, Maine, West Virginia, and Mississippi) all had below-average growth from 2000 to 2004. Perhaps large urban states have an economy-of-scale advantage. Thanks to immigrant communities, major colleges and universities, and super-sized employers, they almost always attract enough new people to compensate for the ones that leave. For example, Pennsylvania had several population-loss years during the 1990s but ended up with a gain for the decade overall, thanks largely to growth in suburban Philadelphia. Likewise, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio suffered losses during certain years in the 1980s but recovered by 1990. It’s also possible that the yearly estimates between decades undercount urban areas—which means we might not have actually lost people last year. (The 1999 population estimate had Massachusetts up only 2.6 percent from the official 1990 count, but the actual count a year later showed the Bay State up by 5.5 percent.)

Only two predominantly urban states have ever lost population between decennial censuses: New York and Rhode Island, both in 1980. New York still has an almost-stagnant population, but Rhode Island grew by a respectable 3.1 percent from 2000 to 2004, placing it 25th in the nation. Would Rhode Island’s comeback—and, for that matter, New Hampshire’s continuing growth—be possible without the Bay State’s population stall? Rotate Massachusetts 90 degrees, putting Boston in the middle of a Commonwealth that was vertical instead of horizontal, and it would be one of the fastest-growing states in the Frost Belt. (And only one state government, instead of four—including Maine and Connecticut—would have to contend with the sprawl spreading outward from Boston.)

ne reason for the Bay State’s negative growth is that both natives and people who came here from other states are leaving for greener pastures, not to mention cheaper ones. (See the research report Mass.Migration, published by MassINC, for demographic data about the people moving in and out of state.) According to Census data, Massachusetts has lost more Americans than it has attracted in every year from 1990 through at least 2002. If it weren’t for international immigration, our population would have declined not only last year, but each consecutive year for more than a decade.

This is a familiar pattern in Iowa, where outmigration has occurred, on and off, since the Great Depression. Trying to break the cycle, a group of legislators recently floated a proposal to exempt residents under the age 30 from the state income tax. “More than half of our college graduates leave the state after graduation,” Republican state Sen. Jeff Lamberti told the Des Moines Register in January. “We want to reverse Iowa’s brain drain.”

But that particular solution is not likely to fly in Massachusetts. For one thing, even the elimination of state taxes wouldn’t leave many young families with enough money to afford homes here. And it’s hard to imagine it playing politically, since many of our twentysomethings are not natives but are instead people who came to college here and stayed on for a few years after graduation. Economists might worry about the impact, but a lot of Bay Staters aren’t sorry to see them leave.

Another reason for population loss is our low birth rate. Granted, it’s not the worst in the US. Children are scarcer in many rural states—including the two at the bottom of the scale, Vermont (10.4) and Maine (10.5), and the perennial slow-growth state of West Virginia (11.5). But the trend is clear. In 1997, the birth rate in Massachusetts was 13.5 per 1,000 people, compared with a national rate of 14.5. Just five years later, our birth rate was both lower (12.5 births per 1,000 people) and further apart from the national rate (13.9).

Rotate Massachusetts 90 degrees and it would be a fast-growing state.
At this rate, we may end up like Italy, where the birth rate is down to 9.2 per 1,000 people—and where experts predict that the population could shrink by one-third by 2050. According to the Los Angeles Times, the town of Laviano, in southern Italy, is so desperate for new blood that it’s paying parents the equivalent of $14,000 for every baby delivered. “Maybe this will keep some people from leaving, or make them think twice about leaving,” the mayor says, rather haplessly. Massachusetts, which has a reputation as a good place to get married (especially if you’re gay, but also if you’re just out of college) but an expensive place to raise kids, might do well to emulate Laviano. Maybe we should consider jacking up the fees for marriage licenses and then refunding them to any family that adds dependents.

Some feel that the publicity given to the Bay State’s population drop is much ado about less than nothing. Neal Peirce argued in a Washington Post column last November that growth in “personal wealth,” not population, is much better for a state or region’s economy. He notes that cities with rapid population growth, such as Bakersfield, Calif., have experienced poor or negative growth in personal income over the past decade. Meanwhile, Peirce writes, older urban areas from Cincinnati to San Francisco are enjoying greater wealth because they’re attractive to the right kind of people (i.e., young college graduates with entrepreneurial tendencies). He also notes that “cities with more rain and colder weather” seem to be particularly successful—seemingly good news for Massachusetts.

But Pierce didn’t address the problem of high housing costs in “personal wealth” cities such as Boston. His column was reminiscent of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class, which argued that cities with diverse populations and cultural amenities have an edge in attracting highly skilled workers. But how many Thai restaurants and theater companies would it take to make Bakersfield, with its low cost of living, attractive to young, college-educated Americans? Probably not too many. And while there may be some risk in opening a Starbucks or foreign-language movie theater in Bakersfield, it’s highly risky to start just about any business in an area that’s losing residents.

Massachusetts, and Boston in particular, is already experiencing a steady disappearance of bookstores and movie theaters, and the recent merger of Federated Department Stores (owners of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s) and May Department Stores (owners of Filene’s and Lord & Taylor) can’t be good news for consumers here. If the newly formed mega-company has to close stores, doesn’t it make sense to do so in an area where the number of shoppers is in decline?

For that matter, how sensible is it for public-transit authorities to improve or expand service in cities that are becoming less and less densely populated? Meanwhile, trolley lines and other forms of public transit are proliferating in high-growth Sun Belt cities, such as Dallas, that we New Englanders often mock as auto-oriented cultural wastelands.

It’s risky to start any business in an area that’s losing residents.
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Then there’s political power. Each state’s representation in the US House is based on population—and when the country as a whole is growing, a flat population means diminished clout. That’s why Massachusetts hasn’t gained a congressional seat since 1912, and the last New England state to gain a seat was Connecticut in 1932. In fact, the last time that any Northeastern state gained seats was in 1964, when Maryland and New Jersey picked up one apiece. (If Electoral College votes were distributed the same way they were in 1964, and the Democrats carried the same states they did in 2004, John Kerry would have won by a 283-255 margin.) The loss of Massachusetts congressional seats—six of them in the past 75 years—has serious consequences for the state’s ability to influence national policy and, not incidentally, to stake a claim on federal funding.

Maybe it isn’t that Massachusetts is losing population; maybe we’ve just reached equilibrium, with immigrants and some number of post-graduate hangers-on matching escapees one-for-one. Perhaps, from an environmental standpoint, 6,416,505 is simply the Bay State’s ideal population. Unfortunately, in terms of economics and politics, there is nothing ideal about zero or negative population growth. After spending two years at the bottom of the Census charts, let’s hope that another state takes our place in 2005.