States May Be "Big Losers," but Cities Still Gain

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 (They have plows in the city, ya know.) The Census Bureau's tally of state population changes, released just before Christmas, has become more fodder for some long-suffering states. Five of the nation's largest states were dubbed "the biggest losers," meaning they saw the highest imbalance between people moving out and people moving in.

Not surprisingly, none of the losing states is exactly a picture of economic health. California topped the list, losing more than 98,000 residents. Michigan, Illinois and Ohio lost more than 170,000 between the three of them. New York and New Jersey combined to lose almost 130,000, and Florida lost 31,179.

Sure, it's fun it is to pick on insolvent California, seedy Illinois, and New York, with its Wall Street villains and laid off media mavens. But a closer look at the data reveals a more complex picture.


For one thing, four of the five "losing" industrial stalwarts ended the last fiscal year with more residents than they had twelve months earlier. Yes, more people moved out of these states than moved in. But the number of people born in the states exceeded the number of people dying.

That's right: California's population grew by one percent, Illinois' by half-a-percent, New York's by four-tenths of a percent, and Ohio's by a handful of buckeyes (a tenth of one percent). Michigan, in a sign of the true ravages from the auto industry's failure, actually lost population overall.

Remember your high-school statistics: one should always question the data. The losers, in other words, are gainers.

And that sends our hunt for long-term appreciation in home values in a different direction. Chris Jones, vice president for research of an urban-advocacy group called the Regional Plan Association, points out that big cities are growing and pulling their close-in suburbs along -- even if those suburbs sit in neighboring states.

"State boundaries have little correlation with the economic regions that drive migration," Jones said. "They don't tell you a lot about very big differences within the states."

The Census Bureau concedes that it has not broken down the changes in population to show whether cities in "loser" states are getting bigger or rural areas in "gainer" states are getting smaller. It will produce that data in May 2010, a Census spokesperson told me.

The biggest total population gainers? Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Washington state. The common thread among the winners is that they have fast-growing cities with satellite suburbs, fueled by boomers and empty-nesters move back to spruced-up downtowns. Texas, for example, claims three major urban centers that are all working to make their neighborhoods more transit and pedestrian-friendly and revitalize their downtowns.

Even Nevada, despite its real estate crisis, grew by one percent as Las Vegas became a more diversified economy with more downtown living.

"The types of public spaces and recreation that are traditionally in cities are much more aligned with consumer preference trends than they were 20 years ago," said Jones. "You have an aging population of baby boomers looking for a home that's smaller and more convenient to amenities and transit."

Add to that the fact that many people are marrying and having kids later than they used to, and suddenly cities -- not states -- start looking like the interesting variable. A vibrant metropolitan center with close-in suburbs that lie across state lines teaches us more, perhaps, than counting U-Hauls that drive across state lines.
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