Immigrants Cited as Key to Population Growth of 1980s : Census: Demographers also say early figures show rural areas are losing residents. Bureau officials caution against relying on preliminary numbers.


Waves of immigrants, seeking the American Dream, contributed heavily to the nation’s estimated population growth of 23 million people during the decade, according to demographers and social scientists.

Moreover, growth in the nation’s rural areas reversed itself once again as millions of Americans migrated to urban centers, according to preliminary Census Bureau figures that estimate the nation’s total population at 245.8 million people.

These estimates, based on the census mail returns and follow-up interviews this spring, are subject to change, bureau officials said. They refused to discuss the significance of the figures and cautioned against relying on them.


However, observers are studying the early returns as a way to test their independent estimates of national population growth and demographic trends. And, they say, they’re finding that the preliminary findings match their expectations.

“We’re getting counts that are consistent with what we’ve known,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington. “Maybe their counts are a little bit lower than what we were expecting, but they’re in line with the kinds of projections we made. People are showing up in the places we expected them to be.”

The most obvious examples of matching trends, he says, can be found in a comparison of the early findings of the nation’s two most populous states: Nearly all demographers predicted that California would be a winner and New York a relative loser in the census count.

California showed about 29.3 million residents, a 23.7% increase over the 1980 count. New York, where a failing economy has nudged away jobs and workers, showed a paltry 0.4% population gain to 17.6 million residents.

Other winners in the preliminary tally include Nevada (49.1% increase), Arizona (+33.1%), Florida (+31.1%) and Texas (+11.8%) in the Sun Belt. Losers, including Iowa (-5.1%), Illinois (-0.9%), Pennsylvania (-0.8%) and Michigan (-0.9%), are clustered in the Rust Belt.

John Connolly, an assistant to Census Director Barbara Everitt Bryant, said these early figures are “working numbers,” adding: “We expect these numbers to rise throughout the country. We don’t know how much of a rise because we’re not finished counting yet.”

But demographers say the figures are helpful. In particular, they point to the numbers to prove their belief that legal and illegal immigration is boosting the nation’s population. In some states, for example, the infusion of immigrants during the 1980s prevented a decline in total population, said Passel, an immigration expert.

“New York grew by about 70,000 people, if the census figures are to be believed,” he says. “But New York got close to 1 million immigrants over the decade. Clearly, without the immigrants, New York would be losing population at a pretty rapid clip.”

He noted that California, Texas and Florida are magnets for immigrants, as well as for native-born residents seeking jobs and warm weather.

The driving force behind all these changes is economics, said William P. O'Hare, director of policy studies with the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based firm specializing in demographic trends.

“Almost all of the nation’s immigrants are going to the Sun Belt states,” he said. “They’re following the jobs. I don’t see anything about that trend that’s going to change in the next couple of decades.”

Ken Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University in Chicago, said his analysis of the preliminary figures shows that rural areas are losing residents once again, reversing a short-lived trend during the 1970s of rural community gains and urban population losses.

Passel said the shift in population from one region to another creates severe pressures as communities grapple with housing and employing the new residents. “My sense is, however, that population growth is probably less of a problem for the place getting the people than it is for the places losing them,” he said.

“It’s worse if you lose your jobs and your tax base. Then the communities are left with infrastructure problems. How do you support the infrastructure with few (work-age) people?”

The political implications of that fact are not lost on local and state officials, who also stand to lose or gain congressional representation based on the census figures, because the 435 seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned by state population. Also at stake are federal dollars from programs funded on a population basis.

California is expected to gain seven additional congressional seats, bringing the state to 52 representatives. New York, by contrast, is expected to lose three seats.

Some officials, such as those in Los Angeles and New York, are complaining about an undercount of their residents and are preparing to mount challenges to change the numbers before final figures are reported to President Bush on Dec. 31.

Mayor Tom Bradley, while pleased with the way Los Angeles fared in the preliminary report, said he couldn’t wholly embrace the census tally, “especially in light of the disastrous undercount reported across the country.”

In New York, Mayor David N. Dinkins was more blunt, calling the preliminary returns “unadulterated nonsense.” He was joined by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who said the state was undercounted and his Administration will “do anything we can to challenge it.”