WASHINGTON - One of the hallmarks of the American economy has been the mobility of its people - the speed with which they pulled up stakes to seek better opportunities elsewhere. But the deep recession ambushed long-running population trends, sharply slowing the migration to the Sun Belt while giving a boost to states with more jobs and affordable housing.
Now as the recovery seems to be gaining steam, a central question is whether the population distortions caused by the 2007-09 downturn represent a long-term change, or whether the previous trends will reassert themselves as the economy grows stronger in coming years.
The first set of data from the 2010 census, released earlier this month, underscored the big role that economic forces can play in driving population shifts. While the movement of people - and political power - from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West continued, there were significant changes within that pattern, including a slowdown in what had long been some of the nation's fastest-growing states.
And those same forces are likely to shape the current decade, at least the first part of it.
"Over time, the [population] numbers will reflect the rate of job growth," said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, Calif.
As a result, Texas, the nation's second-largest state after California, was the big winner in the decade just ending. With its low home prices and pro-business policies, Texas felt relatively little effect from the housing meltdown and has bounced back from the recession faster than other big states.
Its jobless rate has fallen to 8.2 percent, whereas California's remains stuck at above 12 percent and the nation's is hovering near 10 percent.
And the population of Texas surged nearly 21 percent to more than 25.1 million over the decade, adding to its expanding economic base and its congressional delegation - the latter a significant source of future economic vitality because of the growing delegation's ability to steer federal spending to the state.
Overall, the nation's population increased 9.7 percent between 2000 and 2010, the smallest 10-year growth rate since the decade of the Great Depression. As in the 1930s, the latest slowdown was due to fewer immigrant arrivals and a shrinking of the nation's birthrate, in part because of the economic downturn and the hardships inflicted on many families.
Without the recession, Florida, long one of the fastest-growing states, would probably have added another half-million more residents over the last decade, says University of Florida demographer Stanley Smith. The state's 2000-10 growth rate was 17.6 percent - less than half the pace of the 1970s.
"I view it more as a temporary [phenomenon], although a very dramatic deviation from the trend," said Smith, who tallies the population for the state. Smith believes that Florida's climate and absence of a state income tax, among other factors, will help restore a stronger in-migration as the economy improves.
But that may be a long time coming for Florida and other states such as California that leaned heavily on housing and other hard-hit industries. The latest report Tuesday shows home prices across the country continued to slide in October, dropping 1 percent overall from a month earlier, according to Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller analysis.
Florida's unemployment rate, 12 percent last month, remains one of the highest in the land. And with greater congestion, weak job markets - and in Florida's case an aging population that has contributed to more deaths and a lower natural rate of increase - analysts say such states may be looking at a persistently weaker population growth over the next decade than they have been accustomed to.