Nine States Are Losing Population, And Everyone Seems To Know Why. Do They?

On December 19th, a flurry of posts from local news outlets appeared on my Facebook feed reporting that New York is one of 9 U.S. states currently losing population… or rather, lost population between July 2017 and July 2018.  Worse, I made that age-old mistake of reading the disparaging comments, almost all from people who supposedly hate New York but for some reason still live in New York.  And then there were the overly simplistic reasons people were attributing to the “mass exodus.”  “Taxes!”  “No Jobs!”  “Bad Schools!”  “Snow!”  “Cold!”  And my personal favorite, “The Democrats!”  Because let’s be real, blaming one year of population loss on one simple variable so accurately tells the big picture story of a state with 19 million people (hashtag sarcasm).  Never mind that our state has gained population when you look at a larger sample size of years from 2010-2018… but by all means, let’s call the death of our state at the first blip of negative growth.

So yeah, I’m a little bitter… not with New York or its one year of declining population, but with the people who assume that we are doomed and furthermore, know the reason why people are leaving.

So I conducted a rough study of rankings for the 9 states that are experiencing population loss; New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, Wyoming and Alaska.  I looked at the “usual suspects,” or the common reasons given for why their state is in decline.  While this map shows Puerto Rico is losing population as well, we will focus just on U.S. states for now.  

I also included the same analysis of the two states that are showing the highest growth during the same period, Nevada and Idaho.  This was in an effort to see if they are performing better than the nine states that are losing population with regard to the same metrics.

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Political

Obviously, the migration of people away from the nine states in question is not political.  While New York, Illinois, Connecticut and Hawaii voted for Clinton in the 2016 election, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, Wyoming and Alaska voted for Trump.  The two states that experienced the highest percentage growth were Idaho and Nevada… in the last presidential election, Idaho voted red, Nevada blue.  The states that are experiencing population loss (and also gain) are split with regard to their political affiliation.

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Overall Individual Tax Burden

OK, I hate to admit it, the haters might have something here.  Five of the top 13 states with the highest individual tax burden are losing population (New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, Illinois and West Virginia).  Furthermore, only one state (Minnesota) in the top 13 states is experiencing more than a 0.5% growth from July 2017 to July 2018.

But obviously, taxes don’t tell the whole story.  Alaska has the lowest individual tax burden and it’s still losing population.   Wyoming is 14th least, and is still on the naughty list.  Nevada and Idaho, the two states experiencing more than 2% growth for the year in question, are the 20th and 11th least taxed respectively… not exactly 1 and 2.

So what can we tell from these numbers?  That while it appears taxes may figure into the conversation about why people are leaving the nine states in question, it certainly does not tell the whole story.

Job Market

As no surprise, employment seems to also figure in to the equation of declining population.  Of the nine states that are losing population, only one of them scratches the top 20 in a ranking of job markets by state, and six are in the bottom 10, including 47th, 48th, 49th and 50th.  But once again, this doesn’t tell the whole story… Idaho and Nevada are 27th and 22th on this list, which doesn’t exactly blow the doors off this analysis.  So while there does seem to be a significant correlation between job market strength and population loss, just like taxes, this is far from the whole story.

Tax Burden (1-50, With 1 = Lowest and 50 = Highest)

Median Income

This is where it starts to jump all over the map.  Hawaii, Alaska and Wyoming are 3rd, 4th and 6th in median income respectively, while Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi are 50th, 48th and 45th.

Lowest Cost Of Living

Mississippi has the lowest cost of living of any state in the Union.  Wyoming is 5th.  But Alaska, Connecticut, New York and Hawaii are the 46th, 47th, 48th and 50th respectively.  Again, Nevada is 37th, and Idaho is 18th… unremarkable and inconclusive for sure.

Weather

In places like New York, people (even our governor!) often cite bad weather as a reason residents are fleeing for warmer climates.  If we assume that high temperatures and low precipitation are preferable over low temps and high precipitation, I combined the rankings of both for each state and divided by two in an effort to develop an “average.”  For example, Hawaii is 50th in annual precipitation but 1st in average temperature… so the weather score for Hawaii is (50+1) / 2 = 25.5.

Yes, I get it, this is a very unscientific method of determining what state has the best “weather” but it gives you a general idea.  In any event, the scores for the states that are losing population were all extremely average, ranging from 24-35.  Nothing conclusive here.

Crime

Crime is simply my favorite reason that people give for population loss… and by favorite I mean infuriating.  Yes, crime can have an effect on a population, but while much of the country thinks crime is out of control, the national violent crime rate has been cut in half since the early 1990s.

Connecticut and Wyoming are the 6th and 9th safest states respectively, while Louisiana and Alaska are 48th and 49th.  Most of the rest of the “losing nine” are pretty average.  For the record, Idaho is 5th safest and Nevada is 40th.  No real strong correlation with regard to crime alone.

Public Education

“Our schools are terrible,” someone wrote in the comments of the aforementioned article… and there were 50 other comments just like this one.  And they miiiight be slightly right.

Of the nine states that are losing population, four are in the bottom ten and none are in the top ten.  But again, looking at the same metric for the two states that are experiencing the most growth, Idaho is 30th and Nevada is 44th.  So while the states that are losing population are collectively sub par with regard to public education ranking, so are the states that are growing at the highest rate.

Happiness Ranking

Maybe it’s all about being happy (or unhappy) with where you live that make a difference with regard to population growth or loss?  In a self-reporting study that measured how happy people were with various aspects of their lives, the nine states in question performed had an average ranking of about 30th, and thus in the bottom 50%.  But again, so did Idaho and Nevada, slightly better at the average ranking of 26th.

Overall Average Ranking

Again, in a completely unscientific but and strictly curious endeavor, I averaged the rankings in the categories mentioned above for the nine states that are bleeding population, as well as the two that experienced the highest population growth for the same time period, Nevada and Idaho.

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As the chart shows, the “average-ness” of the rankings are nothing short of yawn-inducing.  Even Nevada and Idaho fall right in line with the average rankings of states that are losing population.

Conclusion

While we see that some metrics like taxes, jobs and public education rankings may have some effect on why residents are fleeing certain states, it is abundantly clear that these are far from the only metrics at work in determining which states are growing and which are shrinking with regard to population.  The lesson to be learned, if any?  Don’t jump to conclusions about why your state may be succeeding or struggling.  More than likely, there are an incredibly complex set of unique variables that are affecting highly localized areas in your state, causing people to leave.  These variables are probably more numerous and interwoven than most of us can comprehend, and while we should continue to search, summing up the conclusion in one facebook response (or blog post for that matter!) is usually unwise.

Instead, let’s do what we can to make our states better.  Join a neighborhood or civic organization, run for office, start a business, volunteer, and most importantly, spread the word about why our states, cities, communities, neighborhoods and locales are great places to be.  Stay motivated, stay positive and stay engaged, and where you live might just turn the corner toward a better tomorrow!