I have not travelled much in the USA. Indeed, until our recent trip to Canada I had never visited the country. Now I can say that I am lucky enough to have spent some (limited) time in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. (and a night in northern Vermont). It is of course trite to say, but the two places at the opposite ends of the country were extremely different: the weather; the landscape; the aesthetic; the people; and even the general feel of the place. Of course California is going to be different from New York but this was my first experience of the vast country and a taste of how the 50 states can be so distinct.

This distinctiveness is mirrored in the demography of the states. As USAtoday reports, the numbers from 2016 show that the population of the USA as a whole grew by 0.7 per cent, but this covers some stark regional differences in growth. Eight states in the Union lost population from 2015 to 2016. They were: Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming. This is the largest number of states that registered a population drop in one year since the collapse in oil prices in 1987 when 12 states faced demographic drops. What is interesting about the states that lost population in 2016 is that they are not concentrated in one area; instead there are states from the rust belt, New England, the South and out West.  A further 11 states grew below the national average (Alabama, California, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Virginia).

In part this slowdown is a reflection of a changing population structure. The population is ageing and the USA’s national population growth is the slowest it has been for 70 years. Thus, after 20 years of growth, Pennsylvania’s population dropped by nearly 8,000 people in 2016. There were more deaths, fewer births and fewer immigrants in that state. Other states face more specialised, economic reasons for population decline. Places which are producers of energy (coal, natural gas and oil) have suffered from low prices and workers moving elsewhere to find jobs (see Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming). West Virginia declined by another 10,000 people in 2016, its fourth year of population loss while Wyoming lost population after 15 years of growth.   

As the baby boomers retire, growing numbers of retirees are chasing the sun and lower-cost states in the sun-belt. Thus Florida is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. Other states such as Idaho, Nevada and Washington are experiencing population growth (at twice the national average) to match their economic growth.

Other factors for the move between states include push–factors, including tax burdens. The Tax Foundation concluded last year that “Taxes are not the sole factor why individuals migrate … but a relationship does exist.” The state which suffered the largest population drop in 2016 was Illinois (it declined by 37,500 people). A poll in October 2016 found that half those interviewed would like to leave the state due to taxes and the weather. Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut and New York (all states which lost population in 2016) have the among the highest median property tax rates in the country. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo declared that property taxes are “killing this state” in his State of the State address in January. Connecticut and New York also rank near the bottom of the Tax Foundation’s “State Business Tax Climate Index” suggesting that perhaps their population losses are partly due to the business environment. On the other hand fast-growing Florida, Nevada and Utah rank high on the same list.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...