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Census: Population slowing in large portions of US

Many states that posted big population gains in the 2010 census are now seeing their decade-long growth fizzle, hurt by a prolonged economic slump that is stretching into larger portions of the South and West.

New 2011 estimates released Wednesday by the Census Bureau are the first state numbers since the 2010 count, which found the nation's population growth shifting to the Sun Belt.

As a whole, the U.S. population grew by 2.8 million, reaching 311.6 million people. That growth of 0.92 percent was the lowest since the mid-1940s, hurt by fewer births and less immigration following the recent recession. From 2000 to 2010, the government previously reported the nation grew 9.7 percent, the lowest since the Great Depression.

"The nation's overall growth rate is now at its lowest point since before the baby boom," said Census Bureau director Robert Groves.

Washington, D.C., grew faster than any state in the nation, climbing by 2.7 percent from April 2010 to July of this year. It was the first time the District led states in growth since the early 1940s. Texas was next-fastest growing, followed by Utah, Alaska, Colorado and North Dakota.

States that prospered during the real estate boom, such as Arizona, Nevada and Florida, were already beginning to show a drop in growth when their populations were officially counted a year ago. Since then, the slowdown has spread to other burgeoning areas whose populations had previously withstood much of the dampening effects of the sluggish economy.

They include Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and Idaho, whose annual growth over the last two years is now the weakest than any time in the last decade.

Texas, the big 2010 winner owing to a diversified economy that attracted new residents during the recession, is seeing its growth slow as fewer people move there. In contrast, Democratic-leaning states such as California and New York are losing fewer residents to other states than before.

"Record low migration has continued to put a damper on what looked to be a Sun Belt growth explosion just five years ago," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, who reviewed the numbers. "States that seemed immune from the housing bust are now experiencing declining population growth as employment opportunities in a variety of industries contract, and as mortgages seem nearly impossible to obtain."

The Census Bureau released state population estimates as of July 1, 2011. The data show annual changes through births, deaths, and domestic and foreign migration.

In all, 38 states showed lower growth in 2010 and 2011 than in either of the previous two years during the recession. Twenty-three of these states are in South and West region. Moreover, 28 states showed either slower in-migration or greater out-migration than in either of the first two years of the recession. These include Nevada and Arizona, but also Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colorado and Utah.

Three states — Rhode Island, Michigan and Maine — have lost population since the 2010 census.

Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, said if the 2010 count had been held this year, Minnesota would have lost a seat in the House of Representatives and North Carolina would have picked up one due to the shifting population figures. Based on continuing losses, Rhode Island is now closer to losing one of its seats with just 41,000 people to spare. "It's definitely not moving in Rhode Island's favor," he said.

California remained the most populous state, followed by Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.

The slowing U.S. growth comes as foreign immigration has declined since the recession, and fewer people are moving around within the nation's borders. In the last year, just 11.6 percent of the nation's population moved to a new home — the lowest since the government began tracking information on movers in 1948.

A few bright spots include North Dakota and Alaska, whose thriving energy industries have helped attract residents and buoy employment rates. Both ranked among the top six fastest-growing states for the last two years, ranking higher than Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

"After years of population decline, it's welcomed news to see that our economic growth over the last decade continues to keep North Dakotans home," said Gov. Jack Dalrymple. State demographers attributed the turnaround to an oil boom. The state's population gain since the 2010 census is nearly one-third as great as that during the entire decade from 2000-2010.

Florida, which saw its growth drop off sharply at the end of the last decade, is now showing signs of a slow recovery.

From 2007 to 2009, Florida saw more people move out than move in for the first time since the early 1970s; the latest estimates are now showing some rebound in population growth, due to fewer people who are moving to other southern states and greater gains from the northeast.

"The worst may be over for Florida," said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer and sociologist at the University of New Hampshire.

As a whole, the South last year was the only U.S. region with a statistically significant increase in the poverty rate to 16.9 percent, higher than the national average of 15.1 percent. Some economists say huge swaths of the region could face a tough recovery after experiencing dramatic swings of housing boom and bust.

In contrast, the District of Columbia's population has reversed decades of decline in the 2000s as young professionals flocked to the region. It topped 600,000 last year for the first time in nearly 20 years as the relative stability of federal government jobs helped insulate the district from the nation's economic woes.

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Associated Press writers James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D., and Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this report.

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