WASHINGTON — New census figures show that Maine and West Virginia were the only two states to post population declines between July 2012 and July 2013, while many southern and western states grew by 1 percent or more amid a struggling economy.
The loss of 199 Maine residents – or just 0.01 percent of the state’s 1.3 million residents – was a small enough shift to be within the U.S. Census Bureau’s margin of error, meaning the state’s population effectively stagnated. Most other New England states also showed little or no growth.
The trend in recent years is clear: Maine’s population growth is well behind the rates seen in most other states. That slow growth, in turn, has implications for existing companies’ ability to maintain their workforces as Maine’s population grays, as well as for the state’s attractiveness to new companies.
“There are some industries in the state that are already struggling to find workers,” said Maine State Economist Amanda Rector. “They have aging workforces and are trying to find younger workers to come up through the ranks.”
Nationwide, the population grew by 2,255,154 people year over year, an increase of 0.72 percent, according to the Census Bureau figures. That was the slowest growth rate in decades.
Western and southern states led the way, growing on average by nearly 1 percent, while the Northeast posted the smallest regional uptick at 0.31 percent.
North Dakota’s population surged by more than 3 percent, largely because of the oil boom in that state, while Utah, Colorado and Texas all grew by roughly 1.5 percent.
The story was much different in New England, which is already home to the nation’s oldest population.
Only Massachusetts matched the national growth rate. The five other states all ranked among the bottom 10 states with growth rates of less than 0.2 percent. The five other states with the slowest population growth rates were West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Illinois and Michigan.
Demographically speaking, Maine is already the oldest state in the nation with a median age of 43.5 years in 2012, compared to the national median age of 37.4 years. Vermont and New Hampshire had the second oldest populations at 42.3 years old and 42 years old, respectively, according to census figures.
The Census Bureau is expected to release more specific data next month showing a state-by-state breakdown of births, deaths and migration. Rector said that information will help shed more light on the past year’s population changes – or relative lack thereof – in Maine, although she said the slow-growth trend is clear by now.
Charles Colgan, a University of Southern Maine economist who monitors population demographics and their economic implications, said the key is attracting new, younger residents to the state.
“Basically, deaths are exceeding births and we are not seeing any significant in-migration from any source to offset that decline,” Colgan said. He estimated that Maine will need about 3,000 new residents annually for the next several decades in order to offset the losses and keep a steady supply of workers.
Migration into Maine was relatively strong during the first half of the last decade and continued until around 2007, Colgan said. But then the recession hit in 2008, and Maine’s economic recovery has been slower than in many other states, factors that Colgan said clearly play into the stagnant population trend lines in the state.
“What this tells me is we are still stuck in neutral,” he said.
Maine’s aging population has had a disproportionate impact on the state’s manufacturing sector, such as paper mills. It also has significant policy implications as the baby boom generation enters retirement and begins tapping into programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
On the education front, many rural towns are struggling to keep open their community schools as the population of school-aged children drops.
The Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will be 317,297,938 on New Year’s Day. California remains the largest state, with a population of 38.3 million people, followed by Texas, New York and Florida. Some demographers had expected Florida to eclipse New York this year in the No. 3 spot but now project it will happen next year.
Kevin Miller can be reached at 317-6256 or at: