New Mexico has a split personality when it comes to the issue of growth.
People here like it cozy, familiar. They want to maintain connections, whether of proximity, relationships or shared history. That’s why the first question upon meeting is usually this: Where are you from?
For many, too much growth decreases the connectivity many New Mexicans cherish. At the same time, no one wants to feel as if the state they love somehow is lacking.
And yet we are lacking — or could be — in people.
According to new U.S. Census Bureau figures, New Mexico’s population grew by just 2.8 percent in the past decade — making it one of the slowest-growing states in the West. Only Wyoming lagged behind. Of course, all census numbers in New Mexico are somewhat suspect, given our hard-to-count population, whether in rural tribal communities or urban neighborhoods where immigrants stay hidden.
However it was reached, the new count puts New Mexico’s population at just over 2.1 million people, only 58,343 more people than lived here a decade ago. Unlike the neighboring states of Texas and Colorado, that slight population increase did not earn New Mexico an additional seat in Congress.
New Mexico remained steady. It possesses three seats in Congress, just as it has since 1982.
Trouble is, without growth, the threat of stagnation is real.
New Mexico’s nearly flat numbers — and some troubling trends below those figures — made for a fascinating Legislative Finance Committee meeting last week.
Lawmakers on that influential panel learned the state is growing older, with 38 percent of the growth we did experience among people ages 65 and older. The birth rate dropped a whopping 19 percent between 2010 and 2019, a decline that has long-term implications, both for our society and our bottom line.
An older population and little growth mean fewer younger workers paying taxes, plus sparsely attended K-12 schools and colleges because children and young people aren’t here. There’s also this reality: An aging population will need medical and other forms of care — all at a time when the oil and gas economy is retrenching and the state budget is in a boom-and-bust cycle.
Should this picture remain constant, New Mexico faces the likelihood of lacking the tax dollars to pay for necessary services.
Slow growth numbers shouldn’t be surprising. The 2008 recession hit New Mexico hard, and recovery lagged behind other states. That had an impact on our population numbers, with people leaving for opportunities elsewhere. Since 2013, the state has seen more people moving out of state annually than moved in. That’s negative net migration, which without robust birth numbers, eventually means a state will lose population.
Fortunately, we’re not there — yet.
We have bright spots that aren’t reflected in the most recent census numbers or last week’s report to legislators.
For one, the stagnation of 2010-20 seems to be tapering away. In 2019, the nation’s largest mover — United Van Lines — ranked New Mexico No. 10 for number of people moving in, not out. That’s a sharp contrast over 2014, when New Mexico was in the top 10 for people moving away. Negative net migration could be a thing of the past.
What’s unknown, and what the 2020 census likely won’t tell us, is the long-lasting effects left by the pandemic. What we know now is obvious: Housing in Albuquerque and Santa Fe is in short supply; anecdotally, dwellings are being snapped up by people from both coasts who’ve had enough of life in the fast lane.
Whether that’s a big boom or just a fad, we won’t know for a while. But it’s a start.
And with expanded early education for babies and young children, the potential for clean energy and film jobs, plus some of the most affordable colleges in the country, New Mexico has much to offer to families — in addition to sunshine, the great outdoors and unrivaled beauty.
Still, the question remains: How much growth does New Mexico want? Can expansion be shared in both rural and urban areas so all parts of the state thrive? What can our land and water support? How big can we be before New Mexico’s character is lost? Those are questions states that value growth over connections seldom ask.
Remember, New Mexico is of two minds about growth. We don’t want to shrink into obscurity, but we do not value growth for growth’s sake.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get it just right.