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State population growth dismal, but seven counties gain

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By Harold Morgan

In a previous column, I discussed those leaving New Mexico, namely the 25- to- 44-year olds who should provide the core of a productive society. This time the topic is the number staying. The numbers, for July 1, 2017, come from the Census Bureau. New numbers are due next month.

The state’s overall population situation remains dismal; we added only 28,891 people from the April 2010 census to 2017. That’s a 1.4 percent increase. Contrast that with Arizona, up by 624,253 (yes, from a larger base), a 9.8 percent increase.  Booming Colorado’s population grew 11.5 percent during the period. Those two neighbors can’t match New Mexico’s “accomplishment” of declining population in 2014 and 2015. It has been a lost decade.

Ten New Mexico counties gained population during the period. Only Sandoval and Santa Fe counties gained every year.

Bernalillo and Los Alamos counties lost population during one year by amounts so tiny as to not really count. These four are the north central urban area. Doña Ana is also urban with the second largest county population in 2017 (215,579), with Las Cruces and part of the larger Júarez-El Paso combo.

Urban wins. The message isn’t good for the rest of the state.

Amid the gloom a few glimmers appear.

While just five counties showed positive domestic migration for the seven-year period, for the 2016-2017 year it was a dozen. (Domestic migration refers to people moving into or out of an area.) The seven with the migration turnaround are Catron, Lincoln, Los Alamos, Guadalupe, Torrance, Union, and Valencia.

Additionally, Santa Fe and Sandoval counties attracted substantially more migrants than the seven-year average. For the year, Bernalillo County lost 1,860 domestic migrants, equal to its seven year average.

For other counties, different things are happening.

The Chaves County population grew by 148 between 2012 and 2013 and has drifted down since. Chaves’ 2017 population is 64,866. It was 65,645 for the 2010 Census.

Lea and McKinley counties are close in the alphabet and in population with Lea showing 68,759 in 2017 and McKinley at 72,564. Both gained population during the 2010 to 2017 period. They peaked in 2015 and dropped the next two years.

The performance was quite different. Lea County added 4,032 people, or 6.2 percent, during the seven years. McKinley added 1,076 for a 1.5 percent increase. With one exception, the population factors were about the same. The exception was domestic migration. While Lea County lost 990 people to other parts of the U.S., 3,581 people left McKinley County. That’s three and a half times more than the Lea departures.

Incomes add to the story. For 2016 (the latest income figures available) the per capita income in Lea County was $33,371 (22nd in the state) and $25,688 in McKinley (33rd in the state).

To state the obvious, the economies of the two counties are quite different and people respond accordingly, seeking betterment, just as people respond to the economies of Arizona, Colorado and Texas being quite different from New Mexico.

Our vast spaces show in the population numbers. We have seven counties with fewer than 5,000 people – Catron, De Baca, Guadalupe, Harding, Hidalgo, Mora, and Union. Five counties are in the northeast with two in the southwest. Their total 2017 population was 23,580. Together they lost 7.8 percent of their population in seven years.

The group spreads across 15.1 million acres, 19 percent of the state’s 77.9 million acres. The spread is thin; the seven-county population is 1.2 percent of the state’s 2.09 million.

All in all, we go back to the economic truism: incentives matter, incentives such as higher income and decent education for the kids..