The possible benefits of predictable population growth

Population growth in the Bay State has been relatively predictable over the past half-century: no sudden spurts, no actual declines. The problems associated with population loss–labor shortages, falling tax revenues, etc.–are obvious, but should Massachusetts, which ties for 11th in the narrowness of the spread between highest and lowest growth rates over the last five decades, take comfort in the fact that it hasn’t been a boom state for nearly a century?

Perhaps. The Washington Post‘s Blaine Harden recently suggested that rapid growth can actually be a negative factor in attracting young, well-educated migrants. He pointed out that the nation’s fastest-growing city, Las Vegas, attracts more high school dropouts than college graduates. Population-boom areas, he wrote, “have needs not associated with college education, like the construction industry and service workers for retirement communities.” Cooling-off periods, which may be in the offing for Arizona and Nevada, may bring their own problems, since states will need a continued influx of younger people as the migrants from their boom periods get older and require more social services.

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By at least one measure, median family income, states with steady population patterns seem to do better economically. Massachusetts, for example, ranked 10th in median family income in 1959, and rose to fourth place by 1999. During the same period, other states with stable population growth made similar income gains. On the same scale, North Carolina rose from 45th to 31st, Georgia from 43rd to 24th, Minnesota from 24th to eighth, and Virginia from 32nd to 12th.

Meanwhile, states with more unpredictable growth patterns have fallen behind in income. Alaska, ranked first in median family income in 1959, was down to fifth place in 1999. Wyoming fell from 18th to 34th, California from fifth to 15th, New Mexico from 27th to 47th, and Nevada from fourth to 20th. Both New York and West Virginia, which have actually lost population at points during the past half-century, also slid down the median-income chart, the former moving from seventh to 18th and the latter from 39th to 50th.

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