The Fastest-Growing States in America (and Why They're Booming)

It stands to reason that a place like North Dakota, with its surging oil industry and 3 percent unemployment, would rank among the quickest growing states in the country. 

But Nevada, land of 12 percent joblessness and a busted housing market? Turns out it's right at the top of the list too.    

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest round of state by state population estimates, tracking changes between July of 2011 and July of 2012. It's hard to find a single thread that connects all the fastest growing parts of the country, but there are a few distinct themes that emerge. One of the most interesting: It's not necessarily the unemployment rate that counts when it comes to attracting new residents. 

Census_Fastest_Growing_States_Fixed.PNG

This first chart lists the 10 quickest growing states, measured by year-over-year percentage increase in population (it includes Washington, DC because, Congressional representation or not, the District's got more residents than either Vermont or Wyoming). The states with the largest total population gains are less interesting; they're mostly just the biggest states outside the rust belt: Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, Virginia, Washington, Colorado, and New York. Colorado, by far the smallest of that bunch, punched a bit above its weight in terms of growth, while New York punched below. 

But let's keep our attention on the 10 fastest growers. One thing most of them have in common: people are moving to them from elsewhere in the country. Nine are among the top 10 in domestic net migration -- or, the number of new residents per 1000 people already living there. The only exception is Utah, which has a unique dynamic we'll discuss in a bit.   

Census_Domestic_Migration_States.PNG

Particularly in this economy, one might assume people would move wherever there were jobs to be had. And to some degree, that's what seems to be happening. North Dakota's oil rush helped attract about 10,000 additional residents to boost its tiny population. Washington, D.C. saw about 6,000 new people arrive from elsewhere in the country, many of whom were presumably young professionals coming for work. But of the top ten fastest-growing states, only four (or 5, if you only look at the market for professionals in DC) had unemployment rates below the national average in July 2012 (8.3%):

  • North Dakota: 3.0 percent
  • District of Columbia: 8.9 percent
  • Wyoming: 5.6 percent
  • South Carolina: 9.7 percent
  • Texas: 7.1 percent
  • Colorado: 8.3 percent
  • Arizona: 8.3 percent
  • Florida: 8.8 percent
  • South Dakota: 4.5 percent
  • Nevada: 12.0 percent

So what's driving people to move into states with higher-than-average joblessness? Two top candidates are warm weather -- which encourages retirees -- and low taxes -- which encourage professionals, even if the overall job market isn't superb. It's probably not a coincidence that the fastest depleting states in the country all tend to be higher-tax, colder-weather locations.  

Census_Domestic_Departures_States.PNG
What about immigration? For the fastest-growing sections of the country -- other than DC and Florida -- it seems to be a relative non-factor. This may largely be because net migration from Mexico has dropped to zero since the recession. Today, immigrants are having biggest impact on Atlantic coast and the the far Pacific sates, instead of the sunbelt. Census_Immigration_States.PNG

That said, past waves of immigration clearly are having an impact -- through birth rates. Arizona, California, Colorado, and Texas all rank in the top 10 for natural population growth (births minus deaths per 1000 residents) and, according to the Pew Research Center, are also among the ten states with the highest concentration of Hispanics. Nevada ranks 11th for natural growth and has the fifth highest Hispanic population, while Utah, which leads the graph below, has the twelfth largest concentration. This trend shouldn't be surprising. Immigrant families, as well as American born Hispanics, tend to have more children than white families. 

Census_High_Birth_Low_Death.PNG

Another factor driving high birth rates: Mormonism. Utah, Idaho, and Nevada have the three highest concentrations of Mormons of the fifty states, and it's probably not a coincidence that all three rank highly when it comes to natural growth. Utah is in a particularly remarkable situation: It receives barely any immigrants, and between people moving to the state and leaving, its population breaks even. Its presence among the fastest growing states is due almost entirely to its rather remarkable fertility. 

So to review again, here are the fastest growing states in the U.S. New immigration, as shown on the chart below, played a limited role for most of them. Rather, child births, and convincing other Americans to relocate for sunshine, gentle taxes, or a booming job market all tended to be much more important. Having a large Hispanic or Mormon population doesn't hurt. But in short, there's much more than just the health of the economy reshaping our population map. 

(The chart below includes each state in the top 10 for growth rates, as well as the individual growth categories where they also rank in the top 10)

Census_State_Growth_Factors.PNG

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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