Buildings on a deserted Raton street sit empty Tuesday. Colfax County – home to Raton, in northeastern New Mexico – has lost population since 2010, a legislative report said. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s sluggish population growth over the last decade – the slowest since statehood – may offer a peek at the state’s future.

A demographic report presented to legislators this week offers little reason to expect a return to New Mexico’s rapid growth of the 1990s and early 2000s, even as its neighbors in the West enjoy a population boom.

By one forecast, in fact, population growth in New Mexico is expected to slow to a crawl over the next 20 years and perhaps decline before the state reaches 2.2 million people.

Lawmakers described the projections as a sign that New Mexico must do more to create high-paying jobs and provide cultural attractions for young people.advertisement

“It’s a clear warning,” Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said in an interview Friday.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said New Mexico is “patching the roof” but should explore more substantial strategies to make the state a better place to live.

“We’ve got to start thinking about how to keep young people here,” he told his colleagues in a meeting Friday.

Census data released this week put New Mexico’s 2020 population at just under 2.12 million, a 2.8% increase since 2010. It was the smallest growth in the state’s once-a-decade count in at least 100 years, predating statehood.

But the state may see declines in future decades, according to a report issued this week by analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.

They highlighted an earlier forecast by the University of New Mexico estimating the state population would peak at 2.14 million in 2035, then plateau or even decline.advertisement

“Slow population growth is projected to continue for at least a decade before declining,” LFC analysts said in a 23-page report. “New Mexico’s population is not projected to grow above 2.2 million and will likely peak within the next 20 years under the current trends. The state is nearing a point of zero or negative population growth.”

The report suggests New Mexico policymakers prepare for how the future population – likely older and more diverse – will shape the need for public services.

Student enrollment is already declining, though some communities have been reluctant to close schools and consolidate services, the report said.

An older population, by contrast, may draw more heavily on health care and other services for seniors.

In an interview, Robert Rhatigan, the state demographer and director of Geospatial and Population Studies at UNM, said the overall rate of growth isn’t necessarily good or bad on its own. But the migration of younger workers away from New Mexico could be cause for concern.

“The age dynamic is a problem facing New Mexico,” Rhatigan said Friday.advertisement

He wasn’t part of the team that developed the LFC report, but he was familiar with its contents.

Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, said New Mexico isn’t fully capitalizing on its strength in extractive industries, such as oil and gas production.

The state’s education system also discourages newcomers, he said, and high-tech jobs aren’t readily available.

“What would be the incentive for someone to come to New Mexico?” Burt asked.

The legislative report is based largely on data and trends predating the release of 2020 census information. More-detailed data reflecting the 2020 census is expected later this year.

Among the findings outlined in the LFC report:advertisement

• Driven by a falling birth rate, fewer young children live in New Mexico now than a decade ago, and public school enrollment is already declining. The COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate both trends.

The “state’s public education system may need to determine how to best serve a smaller number of students, particularly in rural areas that have seen larger declines,” the report said.

• New Mexico’s working-age population decreased, a trend that would have been worse if not for the oil boom in the Permian Basin.

• More people are moving out than in. “Nearly 60,000 more people moved out of New Mexico over the last 10 years than moved in, and most moved to neighbor states,” the report said.

• New Mexico residents die at higher rates than the national average, likely influenced by high rates of behavioral health issues, such as substance abuse.

• The state’s 65-and-older population grew faster than average, a factor that helped drive the little population increase the state experienced since 2010.