WASHINGTON – If New Mexico’s population growth were a heart patient, it would be flatlining.
Since 2010, the number of people living in the state has remained virtually stagnant, compared with significant population increases in our neighboring states, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
From 2010 to 2016, New Mexico registered total population growth of just 1.1 percent, compared with 10 percent in Colorado and Utah, nearly 11 percent in Texas and 8 percent in Arizona, according to the Census Bureau.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., analyzed the census numbers for the Journal and concluded that the population stagnation is unprecedented in New Mexico history.
“We’ve had steady and consistent growth in New Mexico since statehood, but from 2010 until 2016, we’ve been flat,” Sanderoff said. “That is historic.”
Sanderoff and a University of New Mexico population expert attributed the lack of population growth to a faltering economy – one hit by a national recession, federal spending cuts and, more recently, a crash in prices of oil and natural gas.
“People will follow the jobs, and lately New Mexico has not been producing them in comparison to our neighbors,” Sanderoff said. “As long as we are not creating jobs, we will have this population phenomenon occurring. It is particularly troubling since all of our neighboring states have basically come out of the recession but New Mexico hasn’t.”
Robert Rhatigan, who heads the University of New Mexico’s geospatial population studies program at the university’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said the exodus is historic.
“People are leaving this state en masse and at a rate that has never been seen before,” he said.
It is a relatively new phenomenon.
From 1980 to 1990, New Mexico’s population grew by 16.3 percent. From 1990 until 2000, the increase was 20.1 percent. From 2000 until 2010, New Mexico’s population grew by 13.1 percent.
Then the Great Recession and anemic recovery slammed on the brakes.
A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, said reversing the outward tide will take economic diversification and less reliance on federal assistance in the state.
“The fact is our state is way too reliant on federal dollars – has been for over a century,” said Michael Lonergan, the governor’s spokesman. “Because of that, not only did we get hit with the national recession, but we took a second blow with federal budget cuts (commonly referred to as sequestration) and a dysfunctional Washington. That put us behind almost every state. To make problems worse, we just saw one of the steepest crashes in the oil and gas industry – another sector we’ve been reliant on for decades.
Lonergan said the governor has championed tax cuts and job training, adding, “We can no longer rely on Washington congressional leadership. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we continue to grow our private sector and help small businesses grow.”
Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, said early childhood education, improved health care and economic diversification are critical to attracting – and keeping – New Mexico residents. He said President Donald Trump’s intention to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act could drive even more population loss.
“The loss of health care coverage and jobs could very well send New Mexico into another recession, sending even more people out of state,” Udall said. “New Mexico is a beautiful state, and its people are strong, and we can turn this trend around if we agree that our goal is to invest in our state and work together to build it up.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, also a Democrat, is scheduled to give a speech to the New Mexico Legislature on Monday that will focus, at least partly, on the problem.
There is a silver lining, according to UNM’s Rhatigan, who predicted that the out-migration is slowing and could soon stop.
“They (New Mexicans) haven’t stopped leaving yet, but they will stop by the end of the decade,” he said. “They have roots here. Whenever you see an out-migration from a place due to a depressed economy, the movement only lasts two to three years because the people who remain are tied to the land and aren’t going anywhere. The people who are going to leave have left.”
Two ways to change
There are two ways a state’s population can change: the difference between the number of births and deaths, and the difference between the number of people moving into the state versus out of the state.
According to the Census Bureau, New Mexico added 59,585 people due to natural growth (births versus deaths) from 2010 to 2016. During the same time period, however, 37,780 more people left the state than moved in, resulting in a total population increase estimated at only about 21,000.
The resulting 1 percent rate of growth puts New Mexico at the other end of the spectrum from its neighbors.
“Colorado, Texas and Utah are growing at a 10 times faster rate than us,” Sanderoff said.
As if this data weren’t troubling enough, a 2015 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that more than seven out of 10 babies born in New Mexico were born to mothers reliant on Medicaid, the state and federally funded health insurance program for the poor.
“The vast majority of New Mexico’s children are born into low-income households and receive health care through Medicaid,” Sanderoff said. “This creates an extra strain on our social services in New Mexico, and there is a correlation between poverty and educational attainment levels. That also creates additional challenges for our public schools.”
New Mexico also remains stubbornly at the wrong end of several quality-of-life indicators. WalletHub, a personal finance site, recently ranked all 50 states in terms of best and worst places to raise a child. New Mexico ranked last.
The study analyzed health and safety, education and child care, affordability, socioeconomics and “family fun.”
Out of those five categories, New Mexico ranked second-worst for both education and child care, and socioeconomics; it was the worst state for affordability. Asked what New Mexico could do to improve its reputation as a place to raise a family, WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez, based in Washington, D.C., said boosting the state’s educational climate would help.
“New Mexico could certainly take measures to improve its public high school graduation rate, which is currently the second-lowest in the country, at just 69 percent,” she said. “Attracting new businesses would also help, as the state’s unemployment stands at the fourth-highest, at 6.6 percent.
“More well-paying jobs could also help reduce the percentage of residents living below the poverty line,” she added.
New Mexico’s poverty rate is 16 percent, the second-highest rate in the country.
Wallet Hub also ranked New Mexico the seventh-worst state in which to retire, making it difficult to attract well-off retirees who could help stimulate the economy.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who represents northern New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, said rural New Mexico is hurting from a lack of infrastructure investment.
“I have repeatedly heard from small communities across northern New Mexico that a lack of infrastructure and investment in rural areas has hurt our state,” Luján told the Journal . “Neighboring states have focused on high-speed internet access, job training and education and other priorities specifically designed to attract businesses and create jobs. For New Mexico to succeed, we need to work together to address the challenge of providing the investments we need, cultivating innovation and entrepreneurship, and providing education and training opportunities for our people.”
Sanderoff said Albuquerque-based Research & Polling’s own surveys indicate that younger adults and shorter-term residents are more likely to consider leaving New Mexico than others. Also, those who are not satisfied with their quality of life in the state are more likely to leave than those who are. But nothing factors into the population drain as much as jobs, he said.
“New Mexico has numerous assets that are cherished by many Americans, including our great climate, culture, food, mountains and wilderness areas,” Sanderoff said. “But we need our economy and our jobs to grow. We want our children, after they graduate from college, to stay in New Mexico, and that isn’t happening as much as it should.”