“The picture is worse than people think,” Sanderoff said in an interview. The population increase was due entirely to nature; 53,000 more people were born in New Mexico than died. At the same time, 27,000 more people moved out of New Mexico than moved into New Mexico.
Sanderoff and New Mexico State University economics professor Jim Peach agreed that these former residents made a personal assessment of our economy and their own financial prospects, then voted with their feet.
This trend has been accelerating over the past five years. Population growth from 2010 to 2011, both natural increase and migration, was 0.9 percent. Growth dropped year after year until it was negative 0.1 percent from 2013 to 2014. The 2014-to-2015 period showed no population growth at all.
People migrate for many reasons, but a big one is economic. Sanderoff said that in economic boom times, two-thirds of our state’s population growth comes from people moving into the state.
The loss of population to migration tracks with New Mexico’s dismal economic performance. In testimony to the Senate Finance Committee this month, Peach said the state had 17,300 fewer nonfarm payroll jobs last November than it had in December 2007. Peach said the state isn’t likely to recover those lost jobs until 2017 or 2018.
“While the total population decrease is small, this is the first time since the late 1960s that the Census Bureau estimates indicate a decrease in the state’s population,” Peach testified. “Those leaving the state probably did so mainly for economic reasons. On a county level, 14 New Mexico counties lost population between 2000 and 2010. From 2010 to 2014, 21 of the state’s 33 counties lost population. The demographic trends are not the sign of a healthy economy.”
New Mexico’s economic growth relied for years on federal spending and commodities such as cattle, copper and oil. Federal spending “is not a growth industry,” and commodities are volatile, Peach said in an interview. A new industry that will replace federal spending as a driver of our economy has not yet revealed itself.
Sanderoff’s company does surveys, focus groups and other market research for companies and government agencies. Sanderoff often tries to ask respondents to surveys whether they expect to be living in Albuquerque in five years. Those surveys show that young adults and people who have lived in Albuquerque for eight years or less are the most likely to say they expect to leave town.
Sanderoff’s surveys also show that people like living here, because of our climate, access to outdoor recreation, friendly people, food and culture. Economics isn’t the only reason they leave, either, Sanderoff said. Quality of life and concerns about personal safety are also factors.
Peach cautioned that the census paints with a pretty broad brush, when in fact there is some nuance in demographic data that can’t be ignored.
For one thing, we talk about New Mexico as one place with one economy when the economies of Harding, Lea and Los Alamos counties have little in common except that they all happen to be within the state’s borders. “We don’t have a New Mexico economy,” Peach said. “We have multiple economies.”
People tend to migrate out of a state when economic prospects are better elsewhere, but “we can also have some strange things going on,” he said. Before the latest oil price bust and even while people were moving out of New Mexico, Lea County was adding population very quickly because jobs were available in the oil patch. Rural areas tend to lose population faster than urban areas because economic prospects are worse there.
As a matter of policy, fixing New Mexico’s economy has to be seen as a county-level problem. Peach applauds Albuquerque’s infrastructure investments designed to build an exciting urban environment that will attract new residents and encourage locals to remain. It is one reason Austin, Texas, became a thriving community.
“That doesn’t do much for Catron County,” he said.
The census periodically publishes the data provided by individuals, scrubbed of identifying characteristics, that it uses to make its population estimates. Peach found, using those data in 2013, that more people with college and advanced degrees were moving into New Mexico than were leaving, so on balance migration was improving the educational status of our state even while we were losing population to migration. Peach plans to update his study when new data become available.
A single event can skew data in a small state like ours. Sanderoff said the state had a significant surge in migration in the early 1990s, which coincided with the growth at Intel’s plant in Sandoval County.
To keep people in the state, we must offer education and workforce training at least as good as surrounding states so businesses can find the workforce they’re looking for here, Peach said. “We’re not there yet.” Attempts to make the state more business-friendly alone won’t solve the problem, he said. “The first thing a modern company looks for is a workforce that can do the job.” When they find that workforce in New Mexico, business will grow and the migration trend will reverse.