Census shifts House seats: Five takeaways

The U.S. Census Bureau on Monday rolled out the first data from its decennial count of American residents, figures that will be used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives for the next decade.

The results both confirmed long-running trends and offered surprises for demographers and political observers who were expecting more significant shifts. Here are five takeaways from the first wave of data, and what it means for the balance of power in Washington.

Sun Belt Beats Rust Belt

For a century, Sun Belt and Western states have been accruing power at the expense of Northeastern and Rust Belt states. This decade’s Census continued that trend.

Six of the seven states that will lose a seat in Congress — Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — are in the Rust Belt. Five of those states, leaving West Virginia aside, have been losing seats for a long time.

This Census marks the tenth straight reapportionment process that Pennsylvania has lost a seat. For New York, the losing streak stands at eight, and for Illinois it’s at nine.

On the flip side, four of the six states that will gain seats — Texas, Colorado, North Carolina and Florida — are in the Sun Belt. Texas has gained at least one seat in each of the last eight reapportionment cycles, dating back to the 1950 Census. Florida has gained a seat in each of the last 12 reapportionments.

To put it another way: After the 1940 Census, New York held 45 seats in the House of Representatives, the same size as the combined delegations of California, Texas and Florida. In the next Congress, New York’s delegation will have 11 fewer members than Texas’s alone.

Every Person Matters

Reapportionment data is to political nerds what the NCAA tournament’s Selection Sunday is to basketball fans: There’s always someone on the bubble — in this case, of winning or losing a seat in Congress.

And this year, the race for the 435th seat in Congress was the closest it has ever been. That seat went to Minnesota, which surprised observers who expected it to lose one of its eight seats. But Minnesota will keep its entire delegation by a margin of just 26 residents. New York, in line to receive what would have been the 436th seat in the House, missed out by just 89 residents.

Think about how close that is. If one 737 half-full of hot dish-sporting migrants had left Minneapolis for La Guardia last April, New York would not have lost its seat.

Now the grim way to look at things: New York had lost nearly 2,000 people to the coronavirus by Census Day last year, far more than would have been enough to hold onto its last seat.

Ohio lost its seat by a margin of just 11,462 residents, according to calculations from the demographer Kimball Brace. Arizona, another state many expected to pick up a seat, missed out by just under 80,000 residents. Better luck next decade.

California’s Winning Streak Is Over

California gained at least one seat in every decade since it joined the Union in 1850, at least until the 2010 Census paused their delegation at 53. But the combination of low immigration rates and high domestic out-migration now means the Golden State is losing a seat for the first time in its history.

The state’s population grew by 6.1 percent over the last decade, a result that put it behind the national average — and a rate less than half the growth of neighboring Nevada and arch-rivals Texas and Florida.

California experts expect the state’s independent redistricting commission to consolidate some of the districts in Los Angeles County, where population growth hasn’t kept up with the rest of the state. It’s not clear yet which districts are in jeopardy, but expect two incumbents to be pitted against each other next year.

The Mountain West Is Booming

While Californians may be moving elsewhere, they aren’t going far. Five of the eight states in the Mountain West — Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Colorado — grew by more than 10 percent over the last decade. Montana almost did too; the population there grew 9.6 percent.

The rest of the West Coast is doing just fine, too. Washington, which earned a new House seat last decade, and Oregon, which will get a new seat this time around, both reached double-digit growth rates.

Property costs are already sky-high in California. They’re getting there in Seattle and Portland. Maybe Las Vegas, Phoenix, Boise and Salt Lake City are next in line for the housing boom.

Crises Take Decades To Play Out

The population of the United States grew by just 7.4 percent in the last decade, its second-slowest rate in any decade since the first Census was taken back in 1790. The only other decade with slower growth? The 1930s.

Those two decades — the 1930s and the one that just ended — have the same thing in common: An economic catastrophe at the beginning that took years to play out. 

Ninety years ago, World War II ushered in an era of explosive economic growth and the birth of the Baby Boom generation. This time, the economic growth has returned, but the population growth hasn’t. Women are having children at older ages, either by choice or for economic reasons, and having fewer of them. The population is aging rapidly. Migration has fallen, especially during former President Donald Trump’s term.

The slow population growth of the last decade is a reverberating echo of the Great Recession. We won’t know its full impacts for many decades to come, as fewer and fewer workers support a rising number of retired Americans.

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