Arizona became the fastest-growing state in the nation last year, as the western United States continued to power the country's expansion, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report.
Arizona added 213,000 residents between July 1, 2005, and July 1, 2006 -- growing at a 3.6% clip and narrowly beating out perennial champion Nevada, which grew at a rate of 3.5%, the census reported in data released today.
"Living in the Phoenix area, this is no surprise," said Steve Doig, an Arizona State University journalism professor who tracks census data. "The big fear of long-term Arizonans is we're turning into Southern California -- and we are, because a large portion of Southern California is moving here."
Demographers say that most of Arizona's growth comes from "in-migration" -- residents of other parts of the country, especially Southern California, resettling there. The state's enormous illegal immigration problem -- 440,000 undocumented migrants are caught entering from Mexico annually -- does not appear to have as significant an impact, because most of those who make it into the country undetected leave Arizona for other destinations.
As for the California influence, data show that Arizona is the top destination for those leaving the Golden State, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I've always thought of Nevada as a suburb of Los Angeles," he said, "but Arizona is increasingly becoming a suburb as well."
That's part of a redistribution of population across the entire country that's kept the West as the fastest growing region for most of the past decade.
From July 2005 to July 2006, the West grew at a 1.5% pace, faster than the South, which barely lagged at 1.4%. The most noticeable population decline was in Louisiana, which lost nearly 5% of its pre-Hurricane Katrina residents.
"People are leaving urbanized, more pricey areas to ones with more potential for growth," Frey said. "The $64,000 question is: Are these blue liberals from California who are going to transform those places, or are they people going there because they want to live somewhere more liberal?"
Long a Republican stronghold, Arizona now has a moderate Democrat as its governor. Democrats picked up two congressional seats in last month's midterm election, and voters rejected a ballot initiative banning gay marriage.
Arizonans are used to a certain amount of political turmoil caused by the constant influx of new residents, said Marshall Vest, an economist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
"Whenever you have a vote on any particular issue, you never know what it's going to be," because a large chunk of the electorate has just arrived, he said.
Arizona's economy is largely powered by growth -- by the building of massive subdivisions and office buildings, then the public financing of the infrastructure needed to house those new residents. It enjoyed spectacular run-ups in its real estate market over the past two years, but sales have plunged and prices stagnated, leaving some to predict its expansion will slacken.
And while locals complain about increased traffic -- and the booming Phoenix area resists high-rises and freeway expansions that would confirm its megalopolis status -- political officials and residents alike support business and development, experts said.
"Arizona is the state where growth is good," Vest said, "and too much is just right."
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Growing and shrinking
States with the biggest population gains from July 2005 to July 2006
By actual number
Texas:579,275 | Florida: 321,697 | California:303,402 | Georgia: 231,388 | Arizona 213,311
By percentage change
Arizona:3.6% | Nevada: 3.5% | Idaho: 2.6% | Georgia: 2.5% | Texas: 2.5%
States with the largest losses of population from July 2005 to July 2006
By actual number
Louisiana: --219,563 | New York: --9,538 | Rhode Island: --5,969 | Michigan: --5,190 | Washington, D.C.: -519
By percentage change
Louisiana: --4.9% | Rhode Island: -0.6% | Michigan: --0.1% | Washington, D.C.: --0.1% | New York: 0%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau