Big population shifts used to be easy to predict: When the economy was booming in one part of the country, people would flock there from places where it wasn't.
But at the end of the '90s, when almost every part of the USA is thriving economically, quality of life and foreign immigration are having a less predictable influence on how fast states are growing, according to an analysis of 1999 Census Bureau state population estimates released today.
That might explain why the West and South are enjoying such big population gains this decade. States such as Nevada, Arizona and Georgia attracted people from other states at a phenomenal pace: 433,000 more people moved into Nevada than left from 1990 to 1999; 577,000 more people moved into Arizona; and 665,000 more arrived in Georgia.
It also helps explain why Northeastern states that kept losing people - about 1.9 million more moved out of New York than moved in - are able to keep growing.
Much of New York's gain came from a high birth rate and the more than 1.1 million foreign immigrants who have arrived since 1990.
"Almost every state is doing well," Census Bureau demographer Marc Perry says. "What is that doing to migration? It's a question with no real answer."
At least no clear-cut answer. But the Census data does hint at interesting changes in many states this decade:

  • For the 14th consecutive year, Nevada grew the fastest, up 3.8% from 1998 to 1999 and up 51% since 1990.
Most of the growth came from an influx of people from other states. But for the first time, Nevada is also gaining foreign immigrants fast.
"Nevada is looking more and more like

California," says Robert Lang, director of urban and metropolitan research for the Fannie Mae Foundation, a national community development organization. "It's become a distant suburb of Los Angeles."
Nevada's early growth was largely attributed to the exodus from California, when that state's economy was struggling in the early 1990s. Now, foreign immigrants are headed directly for the state.

  • The Northeast continues to be the nation's slowest-growing region, but it is showing some improvement. The population grew 0.3% last year.
New Hampshire was the fastest-growing Northeastern state. It benefited from an influx of foreign immigrants and people from other states.
  • Hawaii is one of the few states where the economy still is the dominant factor affecting population growth. Almost 100,000 more people left the state than came in since 1990.
Hawaii's population dropped 0.4% in the past year, largely because of military downsizing and the Japanese recession, which cut down on investment and on tourism, a key industry in the state.
  • California's economy has rebounded, but the state continues to lose more people than it attracts from other states: almost 2.2 million since 1990 and 81,000 in the past year. The losses were more than offset by a gain of nearly 2.3 million foreign immigrants since 1990.
The fact that California is retaining more people also affects neighboring states. Utah now is growing less because of the influx of people from California and more because of a high birth rate.
  • The District of Columbia, which has lost 88,000 people since 1990, is showing signs of

The District lost about 2,500 people from 1998 to 1999, vs. 10,000 to 15,000 a year through most of the 1990s.