PRB Discuss Online: Beyond 300 Million, Regional and State Population Trends in the United States

(December 2007) In October 2006, the U.S. population topped 300 million people, and continues to outpace growth in other developed countries. But population change within the United States is highly uneven, with rapid growth in the South and West, and slow growth or population loss in many parts of the Midwest and Northeast.

During a PRB Discuss Online, Mark Mather, deputy director of domestic programs at PRB, answered participants’ questions about U.S. regional and state population trends and their implications for the future.

December 19, 2007 11 AM EST

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Olalla Bohigas: Hi Dr. Mather. I’m a Geography student from Spain. I would like to ask you about the reasons of the population loss in the Midwest and Northeast of the United States.

Thank you very much.
Mark Mather: It’s all about jobs. Parts of the Northeast and Midwest have been losing population for decades due to loss of employment opportunities, especially in manufacturing and farming. Over time, people have been moving out of these areas to pursue educational and employment opportunities elsewhere. The out-migration is most pronounced for young adults, and once you lose that segment of the population, the number of children and families starts to dwindle. There is a broad swath of rural counties stretching from the Canadian border in North Dakota to Texas that have been losing population for several decades. In cities, the population losses tend to be mitigated somewhat by gains from international migration.

Elizabeth Sholes: How much impact has off-shoring of basic manufacturing had on employment and population mobility, and can that be reversed?
Mark Mather: Foreign competition and the decline in manufacturing since the 1970s have contributed to the shift in population from the Frostbelt states (Northeast and Upper Midwest) to states in the Sunbelt. Some manufacturing (e.g., the auto industry) shifted overseas while other manufacturers moved to the U.S. South, where the cost of doing business is lower. The loss of manufacturing jobs has affected cities the most. But the Brookings Institution found that many cities are starting to recover from earlier population losses, particularly in downtown areas. Denver, Houston, and Portland, Oregon are good examples of this trend. Many other large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, are still experiencing high rates of out-migration and would be losing population without international migration to offset the losses.

Joanna Vandenberg: Most of the growth in the USA comes from immigration, legal or illegal.A lot of them are getting more children, that is more than two. I am opposed to that. The question I have what can you do about it? Send them back if they get more than 2 or 3?
Mark Mather: Immigrants and their children account for about 55 percent of the increase in U.S. population since 1967, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Most policymakers would agree that immigration laws are in need of reform, but policies need to be realistic and allow for family integration.

Ken Cordell: This is more of a comment than question. I work for Forest Service R&D on the U. of Georgia Campus. I am part of a national team examining population change and climate change and making linkages to the IPCC’s scenario analyses. We have revised the IPCC U.S. population projections to the U.S. Census projections and have extrapolated these to 2060. We now will analyzing CC and natural resource implications. Is anyone else working with adjusted IPCC pop. forecast scenarios for the U. S.? Wish I could be on the online forum tomorrow, but cannot.
Mark Mather: OK thanks Ken.

Jeffrey A. Herman: Can we avoid a population collapse as when the burgeoning population collides with diminishing resources? When do you think this may happen?
Mark Mather: This was the question on everyone’s minds after Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb” back in the late 1960s. His predictions of widespread famines did not take place. But rapid population growth in the United States still poses a major threat to our economic, environmental, and health security. The problem is that we are coupling rapid population growth with high rates of consumption. The United States makes up about 1/20 of the world’s population but consumes a fourth of the world’s natural resources.

Susan K. Brown: Given that the fertility rate is highest in the more conservative states, I was hoping you could discuss how political values are transmitted. I know college graduates tend to vote Republican more than high school graduates. But is there a “Blau-Duncan” model for politics, that is, intergenerational transmission of political values? Or is political outlook forged more by context and period effects? And what do these fertility trends, coupled with immigration, bode for the future of the political spectrum?
Mark Mather: That’s an interesting question and I’m not sure to what extent parents’ political affiliations are transmitted to their children. It’s true that fertility rates are relatively high in many of the states that tend to vote Republican (e.g., Alaska, Idaho, Texas and Utah), but California, which has voted Democratic in recent elections, also has relatively high fertility. Although fertility undoubtedly plays a role, migration can have a much more immediate impact on politics. PRB did an analysis recently showing that “red” states that voted Republican in the 2004 election are projected to gain four House seats after the 2010 Census, because of domestic and international migration flows to states in the South and West.

Richard Cincotta: What proportions of the growth in U.S. West and South are attributed to domestic migration, international migration, and net additions from births? And how do you suspect those contributions might affect political-party preferences in the future?
Mark Mather: In the South, natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) accounts for about 40 percent of growth, while net domestic migration and international migration contribute about 30 percent each. In the West, natural increase is a bigger component (55 percent) as is international migration (41 percent). The reason the West looks different is because people are still moving out of California, which has had a net loss of about a million domestic migrants since 2000. The high levels of international migration to Southern states could alter political-party preferences, but the growing number of Hispanics/Latinos does not automatically translate into political strength. Many new immigrants are not citizens and are not eligible to vote. Minorities also have lower voter registration and voter turnout rates than non-Hispanic whites. The bigger issue may be the redistribution of House seats, which determines Electoral College votes. Many of the states that voted Democratic in the last election, including Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, are projected to lose House seats during the next 25 years. The Census Bureau projects much faster population growth in states in the South and West, which would result in a geographic redistribution of Electoral College votes.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: This is a unique situation for the US. What policy problems will the government face, particularly in terms of health care financing, and what measures should be taken, according to your assessment?
Mark Mather: This is not my area of expertise, but health care is an important issue right now because the population is aging and people are living longer than ever before. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of people on Medicare could rise from 39 million in 2000 to 79 million in 2030. You might be interested in Richard Suzman’s recent comments about the importance of population aging.  

mark Catone: Mark, as far as regional population trend, and in light of the current credit crunch and subprime mortgage meltdown, how do the population trends relate to personal wealth? What population trends are or are not driving personal wealth, and as an extension, quality of life, health, etc., and what are the implications for the next 3 to 5 years?
Mark Mather: Population trends are linked to quality of life but this is a complex relationship, involving lots of intermediate variables: economic growth, education, the environment, government policy, and other factors. This topic is covered in detail in another recent online discussion by Roger-Mark De Souza.

Sem Sopheak: 1- Did the US give them the best opportunity, such as, habitat, job and security. 2- Did the US have the strategic plannig about the environment problem in developing countries, such as Cambodia.
Mark Mather: 1) Rapid population growth in the Southern and Western regions of the United States is strongly linked to job opportunities in those areas. And these same opportunities attract large numbers of immigrants, and their families, to the United States each year. The number of foreign-born residents has recently reached an all-time high of 37 million. 2) Policymakers and researchers increasingly recognize that environmental, health, and economic issues in developing countries are linked to the well-being and security of people in the United States. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I think we are slowing shifting away from the isolationist policies of the past.

charlie teller: Mark, based on your research on scientists and engineers in the US, please comment on the brain drain from foreign countries. On balance, to what degree does the US benefit, and to what degree do the sending countries benefit (from remittances, value added to their investment, exchange and partner programs, etc.
Mark Mather: Good question. Sending countries such as India and China may fear that they are losing all of their best talent to the United States. But there is also research showing that this mobility of highly-skilled workers can be an efficient way to transfer knowledge between countries; many scientists and engineers return to their home countries to apply their new skills. However, return rates vary by country. Few high-tech workers return to India, compared to China or Korea, for example.

Mark Mather: PRB has written a Population Bulletin on this topic. You can find it here: