Influential state lawmakers on Thursday got a look into New Mexico’s future — one that paints the picture of a state that will get older and more diverse but likely will continue to struggle economically.
Though neighboring states’ population rates are growing faster than the national average, New Mexico’s demographics continue to dawdle — its population grew by a scant 2.8 percent in the past 10 years. And much of that growth, an expert told the Legislative Finance Committee, was due to a 38 percent increase in people age 65 or older.
That age group is likely to expand in the coming years, while the number of younger people likely will shrink, according to a new Legislative Finance Committee report.
“Overall the state’s population is aging into retirement while fewer children are being born,” Mitch Latimer, a program evaluator for the committee, told lawmakers Thursday.
Among other reasons for the stagnating population rate is the state’s birth rate, which dropped 19 percent between 2010 and 2019, he said.
Fewer children means fewer students in the state’s public education system, which in turn means fewer college students down the line, Latimer said.
Such population shifts may require New Mexico lawmakers to rethink how they appropriate state funding, particularly on big-ticket items such as education, services for the elderly and health care.
“This could be quite troubling for our state,” said Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec. “When you have a decline in population, that has a serious trickle-down effect on our economy and our way of life.”
The report said state lawmakers should prepare to right size the state budget by shifting financial resources from the young to the old. A decrease in public education funding because there are fewer students could help shore up services for an increase in seniors, the report says.
And the state should plan to find ways to train workers in jobs vacated by those aging into retirement or leaving the state, according to the report.
Latimer said there were some encouraging signs in the report, including an increase of 13,000 people in the 18-44 age group between 2000 and 2019. Much of that population growth took part in southeastern New Mexico, and Latimer said that might reflect job opportunities in the Permian Basin’s oil and gas industry.
But any future population growth likely will be centered in the state’s largest urban areas, including Santa Fe, as there are more job opportunities there.
Nearly 60,000 people moved out of New Mexico between 2000 and 2019, according to the report.
The numbers are in stark contrast to figures in neighboring states like Texas, Arizona and Colorado, all of which saw population growth in the 12 percent to 16 percent range in the same time period. Those states benefited from an influx of people who relocated from New Mexico, likely because of better employment and economic opportunities.
Citing Pew Charitable Trusts data, the report says that “the fastest-growing states typically have strong economic and labor force growth, and Texas, Colorado and Arizona outperform New Mexico in a number of economic rankings.”
Those economic factors include salaries. The report says New Mexico’s average household income was $71,000 in 2019 — “well below the national average of $92,000 and the $84,000 of Arizona, the neighboring state with the closest average household income.”
It’s not all about economics. The report cites national studies that rank New Mexico near or at the bottom in areas such as public education, health, safety and social factors, which could hurt the state’s chances of attracting new residents — particularly those with families.
Under current trends, New Mexico’s population growth is expected to peak around the 2.2 million mark within 20 years or so, the report says. It is currently around 2.097 million, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this week.
The state will grow in ethnic and racial diversity if current trends continue, the state report said. The state’s white population dropped by 10,000, or 0.5 percent, while the Hispanic population grew by 75,000, or 7.8 percent.
Notably, New Mexico’s Native American population grew by 20,000, or 9.7 percent, in that time period, mirroring national trends.
The Legislative Finance Committee report primarily relied on data compiled between 2000 and 2019, and it only briefly touched on the new census data and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s telling us something when our neighboring states are all at the growth of at least 10 percent verses us at 2.8 percent,” Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, said of the report.
But neither he nor other members of the committee asked specific questions about why more people are leaving New Mexico for other states or what could be done about it.