The U.S. Census Bureau recently released what can only be described as disturbing data regarding the future of New Mexico. Notably, while the Land of Enchantment’s population grew by just 2.8 percent over the past decade, each of our neighbors saw double-digit population growth, with the exception of Oklahoma, which still bested New Mexico with 5.5 percent growth.

That by itself should be a wake-up call for New Mexico’s Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, but a report put out by New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee fleshes out some of New Mexico’s impending demographic challenges and should further guide efforts to change course and make our state a destination for jobs and economic growth, not a failing state that is hemorrhaging young people.

The initial census data made headlines due to New Mexico having the slowest population growth in the state’s history, but there is much more interesting (and troubling) data found in the Legislative Finance Committee report, “State Population Trends,” that was put out using the data. A few highlights from the LFC report:

While New Mexico’s population growth has slowed to a crawl its more economically diversified neighbors saw double-digit population growth over the past decade.

More troubling for New Mexico is the fact that the only age group experiencing significant growth is the oldest demographic, 65-plus. The number of New Mexicans 24 and younger declined dramatically over the last decade.

Worst of all is this direct quote from the report: “While neighboring states continue to gain population through migration from other states, New Mexico had negative net migration of working-age people every year since 2012, likely due to New Mexico’s relatively weak economy and poor rankings in education, health, and safety.”

New Mexico’s slow growth situation is unique. It is in the most favorable region of the nation for population growth. This has clearly helped the state attract retirees who have flexibility in their living situations with a premium on pleasant weather, but it has not helped New Mexico hold on to young people or made the state an attractive destination for young people from other states.

According to the LFC, this dearth of young people in New Mexico is likely to lead to the state’s overall population dropping by the end of this decade. This trend means fewer workers, less tax revenue, and higher costs imposed on various government programs as the elderly population increases.

It doesn’t have to be this way. While plummeting birthrates are a challenge for the entire nation, New Mexico remains geographically well positioned for growth in the years ahead. The problem is policymakers have not embraced public policies oriented toward economic diversification.

On study after study, New Mexico sticks out like a sore thumb in having low levels of economic freedom relative to its neighbors and being less business-friendly. Our education system ranks poorly and is in need of big reforms that inspire confidence among families with children. The recent legislative session had a few bright spots like liquor tax reform, but recent tax hikes and newly-imposed business regulations will not help attract more private sector businesses.

Until a concerted effort is made to make New Mexico more attractive as a relocation destination for young families looking for a strong, diverse economy and a trustworthy education system, New Mexico will continue on the same unhappy, trajectory as the “sick man” of the American Southwest.

Frank Pagurko is a policy analyst at New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, an independent organization that promotes prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

(1) comment

Patricio R. Downs

The great Marc Simmons wrote the following in a column exploring Lew Wallace (onetime NM governor and author of Ben Hur): "Before leaving office in 1881, Gov. Wallace summed up his own view of the territory in a line often quoted today: 'Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.'"

Here we are, some 140 years later, and his quote still rings true. A lot of the issues we have come from the fact that so many people here have the mindset, "That's the way we've always done it. Why do we need to change it?" Another way of thinking of it is the other nickname I've often heard over the years: "Land of Mañana".

Yes, we have history. We have culture. We have lots of things that do need to be preserved. However, we also must be willing to change some things in order to progress. Fifteen or so years ago people were worried about "peak oil", which would endanger the petroleum industry; nowadays it's "planned obsolescence" by means of laws and regulations requiring clean air (also known as the electric-vehicle revolution). Either way, New Mexico needs some major revenue stream that isn't the oil and gas industry.

New Mexico in general, and Santa Fe in particular, also needs to adapt to changing conditions. As mentioned in the article, the biggest growth is in people aged 60+, while we have so many working-age people moving out because there aren't enough jobs that pay a living wage here.

The growth in "senior citizens" is pretty obvious; New Mexico has a generally favorable tax rate and real-estate values when compared to many population centers (like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.). However, there aren't many opportunities for people graduating high school or college, unless you happen to be in the medical field. (New Mexico is a great place to be a nurse, for example. Jobs aplenty, and some employers will pay higher than market rate for your services.) Why is that? Because there aren't many employers here that can pay a living wage that aren't government or somehow linked to the two national labs in the area.

In other places - and in past times - there are, or have been, places that employ a lot of people because there is a developed industry there. I know of several people in Oregon and Washington who made a decent living in the timber industry, enough to raise a family and retire somewhat comfortably. In the old days, there were people who worked in mines or steel mills coming out of high school. Nothing like that exists here, so a lot of people who can't afford to move away - or have something keeping them here, such as a sick family member - end up working several low-paying service jobs. (As an example, I know of a woman who works at a coffee shop, and then does Door Dash so that she can have some extra money for groceries. Something like that is pretty typical nowadays.)

All that to say this: If New Mexico in general - and Santa Fe in particular - wants to grow and keep our best and brightest here, there are several needs that must be addressed. A) an assortment of industries that provide living wages, not just to people who have a bachelor's degree, but to any employee working there; B) decent, affordable housing, be it apartments, manufactured housing, multi-family homes, duplexes, or any other type of permanent residence; and C) the will to "change things up a bit", because "the (Santa Fe/New Mexico) I came to love (20/30/40) years ago" doesn't exist anymore. Only by being open to change will we be able to try something new, so that we can get different results.

Welcome to the discussion.

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