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Community Development

Florida Leads Southeast in Population Growth

Population growth or change is an important local indicator of economic performance, as many studies have shown (see Carlino and Mills, 1987, as an example). Generally, the regions with stronger economies attract more people. This effect is more pronounced when the growing region has few geographic or policy-related limits to housing construction as is true in most of the Southeast. However, the regions with weaker economies experience declining populations because people tend to seek new employment opportunities elsewhere, and fewer people are attracted to migrate to these areas.

Between 2000 and 2010, Florida led the six states in the Atlanta Fed's district (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee) in net gains in migration. Louisiana and Mississippi experienced the greatest population declines, at least in part due to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.1 This report describes population change in the Southeast overall during this time period, and separately for rural and urban areas,2 and discusses racial and ethnic groups.

chart 1


chart 2

Change in the Southeast
According to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, the Southeast total population was 47.14 million in 2010. The total population grew by 13 percent between 2000 and 2010.3 Although chart 1 shows that the Southeast population had positive annual growth during this time period, it fluctuated between years. The highest growth rate was achieved between 2004 and 2005. The change after 2005 was still positive but rose and declined.

Despite the remarkable growth of population in the Southeast between 2000 and 2010, the growth trend differs substantially between rural (nonmetro) and urban (metro) areas. In 2010, over four-fifths (81 percent) of the Southeast's 38 million people lived in 220 urban counties. While the urban population in the Southeast grew by about 15 percent during the decade, the rural population grew by only about 5 percent. Chart 2 shows annual population numbers and change during the decade, indicating that even though rural growth has been lagging behind its urban counterpart, rural growth was steady and overtook urban growth rates between 2005 and 2006 before recording slower growth after 2006.

Race and ethnicity
The Asian population was the fastest-growing racial category in percentage terms,4 growing by 65 percent over the decade to 1.05 million in 2010. The black population grew by 17 percent (from 9.40 million in 2000 to 11 million), and the white population increased by 10 percent (from 31.13 million in 2000 to 34.12 million) over the same time period. Chart 3 shows that the Hispanic population in the Southeast grew by 67 percent over the decade, from 3.52 million in 2000 to 5.87 million in 2010. The Hispanic population in rural counties grew at a faster rate (79 percent) than in urban counties (66 percent). For all other racial groups, the urban population grew at a faster rate than the rural one. Although the Hispanic and Asian populations were the fastest growing in the Southeast, chart 4 shows that their annual rate of growth has been trending downward since 2004. Both the white and black populations have been growing annually between 1 percent and 2 percent, except for 2005 when the black population dropped below 1 percent before it rose again in 2006.

chart 3


chart 4

International and domestic migration
A critical component in population growth or decline in a U.S. region is people's mobility, given the relative stability of current birth and death rates in the country. While international net migration has been somewhat steady in the Southeast during the last decade, domestic net migration has fluctuated sharply. Chart 5 shows that international net migration increased from about 41,000 people in 2000 to about 160,000 in 2001 and has been steady with slight fluctuations between years in the decade. While domestic net migration has increased steadily from around 41,000 people in 2000 to about 374,000 in 2005, it sharply declined to some 56,000 people in 2006. It increased again to about 205,000 individuals in 2007, but fell to 21,000 during the recession. These fluctuations were mainly due to population losses in Louisiana in the first six years of the decade and in Mississippi throughout the time period.

chart 5

Chart 6 shows a more disaggregated view about net migration in the states in the Southeast between 2000 and 2010. Florida had the largest net migration (1.2 million people), followed by Georgia (560,000). While smaller gains were also noted in Tennessee and Alabama over the time period, net losses were estimated for Louisiana and Mississippi. Louisiana was estimated to have lost more than 300,000 people on net, and a vast majority of this loss (283,000 people) came in 2006, which may have been due to Hurricane Katrina.

chart 6


chart 7

A more micro view of population change in the Southeast is shown in chart 7 with a county-level distribution of the net migration rate between 2000 and 2010. A casual look at the map shows that gains are notable in Florida, Tennessee, and northern Georgia. Losses are notable in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. A total of 253 counties out of 534 in the Southeast were estimated to have a negative net migration during this time period. While most of the urban counties (152 out of 220 counties) were estimated to have a net population gain due to migration over the time period, most of the rural counties (186 out of 314 counties) in the region lost more residents than they gained.

Where did the Southeast migrants come from and go to?
More details on where the Southeast migrants came from and left for are available from the American Community Survey 2005–2009 migration data. An examination of this data shows that a majority of the migrants came to the region from eight states led by New York (11 percent), followed by Texas (10 percent), California (7 percent), North Carolina (6 percent), Virginia (5 percent), Ohio (5 percent), Michigan (5 percent), and Illinois (5 percent). The balance came from all other states. The largest recipient states of out-migrants from the Southeast were Texas (16 percent), North Carolina (8 percent), California (6 percent), Virginia (6 percent), New York (5 percent), South Carolina (5 percent), Illinois (4 percent), and Ohio (4 percent).

Government officials at all levels, businesses, and economic development practitioners need to track population change to guide planning and policy decisions. However, finding the reasons for population change requires in-depth analyses. Existing national studies point to loss of earning opportunities, wage difference between regions, higher unemployment regionally  or better employment opportunities in other areas, relocation of industries, decline in government programs, and lack of social and natural amenities (Greenwood, et al., 1986; Knapp and Gravest, 1989; Partridge et al., 2011). While population growth can be a good indicator of economic health, one of the main concerns with the decline of population, especially in rural areas, is that the decline could compromise the ability of local governments in these areas to provide public services, as the fixed costs of public infrastructure for schools and fire and safety must be allocated across fewer residents. A rising tax burden or dwindling services can further aggravate population decline.

By Anil Rupasingha, an economist in the Atlanta Fed's community and economic development group


1Data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program for 2000–2010 and the 2005–2009 County-to-County Migration File from the American Community Survey are used to describe population change in the Southeast.

2Urban and rural areas are counties defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

3The 2010 U.S. Census reported 309 million people in the United States, almost a 10 percent increase from the 2000 Census of 281 million people.

4The Asian population is based on the U.S. Bureau of the Census classification; Hispanic is not a racial category in the U.S. Bureau of the Census classification.

Carlino, G.A., and E.S. Mills. 1987. "The Determinants of County Growth." Journal of Regional Science 27(1): 39–54.

Greenwood, M.J., G.L. Hunt, and J.M. McDowell. 1986. "Migration and Employment Change: Empirical Evidence on the Spatial and Temporal Dimensions of the Linkage." Journal of Regional Science 26(2): 223–234.

Knapp, T.A., and P.E. Gravest. 1989. "On the Role of Amenities in Models of Migration and Regional Development." Journal of Regional Science 29(1): 71–87.

Partridge, M.D., D.S. Rickman, M.R. Olfert, and K. Ali. 2011. "Dwindling US internal migration: evidence of spatial equilibrium or structural shifts in local labor markets?" Regional Science and Urban Economics 42 (1–2): 375–388.