Census: Maricopa County – again – saw country’s biggest population gains

Maricopa County saw the biggest population growth in the nation last year, and greater Phoenix had the second-biggest, with the increase in both cases driven mostly by people moving in to the region, the Census Bureau said. (Photo by HireAHelper/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Maricopa County again saw the largest population increase of any county in the nation last year, adding 81,244 residents to make eight straight years of gains, according to figures released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

The county was the driving force behind a 122,770-person increase in Arizona’s population, which hit 7.17 million last year, according to the bureau’s yearly population estimates for counties and metro areas.

David Plane, a University of Arizona geography and regional development professor, said the numbers are not surprising because “all the action has been in the biggest metro areas.”

“The millennials love big metros, and Phoenix gets growth both from snowbird retirees as well as labor-force-age people, from California in particular,” Plane said.

That move toward big urban areas was evident in the numbers for the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metro area, which added 96,268 residents last year, most of those from domestic migration according to the Census Bureau. The Phoenix area was second only to the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metro area, which added 131,767 people, mostly through natural population increases.

Maricopa remained the fourth largest county in the U.S., with an estimated population of 4,410,824. Since the last complete census in 2010, the county has added 593,707 people, a 15.6% increase.

Only Santa Cruz County saw its population drop last year, with 125 fewer people living in the county in 2018. Santa Cruz and Cochise counties, in the southeast corner of the state, were the only two in Arizona to see their populations fall since the 2010 census.

Plane said that “rural Arizona for a long time has not been growing very fast.” and that the decreases were not a huge surprise.

“The economic base just isn’t there as it once was,” he said. “Cochise County is a big agricultural or ranching county, and a lot of the irrigated agriculture lands are no longer in production. And agriculture is much more efficient these days.”

He said the shift from rural areas is happening nationwide.

“Rural America has been having a tough go of it,” Plane said. “The big metros are where all the action has been.”

Sandra Johnson, a demographer in the Census Bureau’s Population Division, said in a statement the numbers show “the overall growth we are seeing in the South and the West.”

“Though no new metro areas moved into the top-10 largest areas, Phoenix, Seattle, Austin, and Orlando all experienced numeric increases in population since 2010, rivaling growth in areas with much larger populations,” Johnson’s statement said.

William Frey, a demographer for the Brookings Institution, said simply that “things are good for Arizona” in the new numbers, adding that the roughly 62,000 people the Phoenix area added through domestic migration was the biggest such gain of all metro areas in the country.

He said the migration shows that the U.S. is coming back from the great recession, and that it is easier for people to get loans and homes.

“As the economy is coming back, the handcuff people had of being able to get homes … things aren’t nearly as bad as they were in the beginning of the decade,” Frey said. “That’s starting to push people out, especially maybe from California.”

Liz Recchia, government affairs director for WeMar, the West Maricopa Association of Realtors, said that population increases in the West Valley are being driven by “a tremendous surge in job opportunities” there.

“With that comes the demand for housing, and we are in a low-inventory environment right now,” she said.

Recchia said there has been a shift in commuting patterns from the West Valley, with more people working near home than heading east for work.

“Rather than having our talent get on a freeway every morning and spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours going east and then do the same thing coming back west to come home, let’s bring our jobs here,” she said.

Plane said Arizona’s economy has become reliant on growth.

“We talk about the four Cs of Arizona, but these days it’s the big H,” Plane said. “What Arizona’s growth is all about is housing and construction. Growth is the economy of Arizona to a great extent.”

While the numbers are impressive, however, Plane tries to put it in perspective.

“Even though we think about Arizona’s growth as being really rapid, compared to the 1800s, the big cities on the East Coast were growing a lot faster,” he said. “New York City in the middle of the 1800s was growing at almost 10% per year.”

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