New York Soon to Trail Florida in Population

ALBANY — New York, whose status as the most populous state has long been ceded, will soon fall behind Florida into fourth place, a long-anticipated drop that is rife with symbolism and that could carry potentially serious economic consequences in coming years.

A church sitting vacant on Thursday in Buffalo, which has lost more than 10 percent of its population since 2000.

A church sitting vacant on Thursday in Buffalo, which has lost more than 10 percent of its population since 2000.

When the Census Bureau releases its latest population estimates on Monday, demographers expect that Florida and New York will be narrowly separated — perhaps by as little as a few thousand people — and that if Florida does not pass New York this time, it almost certainly will do so in 2014.

The census figures underscore immigration trends, as foreign-born migrants continue to move to warm-weather states such as California and Texas — No. 1 and 2 — as well as to Florida. The newcomers also include winter-weary New Yorkers who move or retire to Florida at a rate of over 50,000 a year, twice the number of Floridians who head to New York.

But the shift also highlights the struggles in upstate New York, which has lost large-scale manufacturing jobs and large chunks of population, offsetting consistent gains in New York City. But the city’s growth has seemingly not been robust enough to stave off hubs in Florida like Jacksonville, Miami-Dade County and Tampa.

“It’s going to happen,” said Andrew A. Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College and an expert on the census, on New York’s falling into fourth place. “And if Florida accidentally grew faster and New York slowed down, it could have happened already.”

Beyond a blow to New Yorkers’ collective ego, the changing population pattern could have many practical and political implications, including diminished congressional delegations, a setback New York already suffered in 2010 — the year of the last decennial census count — when the state lost two districts, while Florida gained two seats. Census data also inform how billions of dollars in federal funding and grants are divvied up among the states, for things like highway planning and construction, public aid for housing and health care and education programs.

All of which has Florida feeling good.

“Every number we see, if we don’t pass them this year, we’re going to pass them in the next few months,” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, said in an interview last week. “Florida’s on a roll.”

A closer look at the numbers shows that New York is not actually losing population. It has been growing at about 1 percent annually of late, but it simply cannot keep up with Florida’s rate of growth, which was about 2.7 percent between April 2010 and mid-2012, according to the Census Bureau. However, New York’s population is declining in upstate cities like Buffalo, which has lost more than 10 percent of its population since 2000, as well as places like Syracuse and Rochester, where population is largely stagnant.

Turning around upstate has been a major focus of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who has tried to revive its fortunes through a variety of economic development programs, including the legalization of more casinos and a program that allows businesses to start or relocate on or near college campuses and pay no state taxes for 10 years.

Florida has actually been creeping up on the Empire State for decades. The last census estimate, for July 2012, put the states nearly tied: New York with 19.6 million and Florida with 19.3 million. But that margin was getting narrower by the day, according to Jan K. Vink, a specialist with the Program on Applied Demographics at Cornell University, which both supplies data to the Census Bureau and reviews its estimates.

Scott Cody, a demographer at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research in Gainesville, which also consults with the bureau, said that trends showed Florida passing New York “in the near future,” barring what he called “the unusual events that can occur: tsunamis, or asteroids, and total economic breakdown.”

Florida had such a meltdown — a bursting housing bubble — but is on the rebound and continues to be a magnet for new arrivals.

While demographers tend to stay neutral on the issue of population growth, they say that bigger is generally better because it tends to reflect an attractive economic climate.

“Once you have a growing economy, you tend to attract a lot of young people,” said Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group in Washington. And that, in turn, he said, means “a lot of babies.”

New York City certainly still attracts young people, Mr. Mather said, “but the city is different from the state.”

However, bigger is not always better. While politicians might welcome the larger tax bases that come with bigger populations, demographers say a need for more services increases. More populous places also have more congestion on highways and more wear-and-tear on public spaces.

“Just because one state is passing another, it’s not a good or a bad thing,” Mr. Cody said. “It doesn’t mean one state is better than another.”

But Mr. Scott said he believes that a large part of Florida’s appeal has to do with its pro-business, low tax approach. Florida also has no personal income tax.

And then there is Florida’s decided climatological edge, which attracts both retirees and those still in the work force, he said.

“When I call on companies around the country, I clearly talk to them about what the weather’s like,” Mr. Scott said. “I say, ‘Oh it’s 40-what?,’ and I joke, ‘I’ve got to turn down the air conditioning so you can hear me.’ ”

Gov. Cuomo pointed to his tax-free campus plan, known as Start-up NY, as an example of how “it’s less expensive for businesses to locate in New York State.”

And as for the weather, Mr. Cuomo said he was happy with New York’s. “Florida and the South have a warmer climate if that’s what you prefer,” he said. “I prefer to have seasons.”

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