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Census estimate a concern for state

Seats in Congress, US funding at risk

Massachusetts lost residents for the second year in a row, new federal Census estimates show, underscoring an accelerating population shift from the Northeast to the South and West that threatens to erode the state's political and economic clout.

Only two other states, along with the District of Columbia, lost population from July 1, 2004, to July 1 of this year, according to US Census estimates released yesterday. The Bay State lost about 8,600 residents, or .1 percent of its population, according to the estimates.

If the trend continues, specialists say, the state will face serious consequences: fewer seats in Congress, companies choosing to locate or expand elsewhere, a shrinking labor force, and less federal funding for transportation, housing, and other initiatives.

''You kind of have to ask yourself . . . why would it be, when it turns out the economy improved a little bit, that you would continue to lose people outside the state?" said Andy Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. The answer, Sum and others said, is better job prospects and cheaper housing elsewhere.

Though some caution not to read too much into the Census estimates, specialists say the trend is real: Bigger, warmer states with growing economies are luring young, well-educated workers and their families from Massachusetts. The result, they say, is a shrinking workforce that will constrain the state economy and compel companies to do business elsewhere.

''There are some troubling demographic trends that are impossible to ignore," said Michael Goodman, director of economic and public policy research at the Donahue Institute of the University of Massachusetts. ''I think the stakes are quite high."

The relatively small decrease in population from last year, analysts say, masks the problem to some degree. Were it not for an influx of immigrants, the population loss would be far larger. But while some immigrants are highly educated and come here for high-tech jobs, they say, many are low-skilled, and their arrival does not make up for the exodus of professionals.

''That does not help us in terms of the aggregate skill level of our workforce," said Ian Bowles, president of MassINC, a Boston-based nonpartisan research and education institute. He added, ''If we're losing population, that raises a lot of concerns in my mind about our economic vitality."

And many of the departing young professionals, precisely the workers the state can't afford to lose, won't come back, Sum said.

''When we lose them, we lose them," he said.

Over the last six years, Massachusetts has lost roughly 230,000 more residents to other states than have moved here from other parts of the country, according to census figures. That deficit, Goodman said, has been offset by an influx of more than 160,000 immigrants, but he said that the number of skilled immigrant workers moving here may slow as more residents of Asian countries stay to work in the hot economies at home.

Marc Draisen -- executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for Greater Boston -- is more sanguine. He said that, despite the census estimates, he believes that the region's population continues to grow, though slowly, and will continue to do so.

''It's important not to get too overwrought about it," he said. ''This is not a count. This is an estimate based on formulas."

Draisen also said the state has seen a recent acceleration of housing production, particularly in multifamily complexes.

According to the state Office of Commonwealth Development, multifamily housing starts have doubled to about 7,000 a year.

Still, Draisen said these kinds of census reports have to be taken seriously because they're used to determine such things as how much federal money goes to which states. Population figures are key components of many funding formulas.

Nationally, according to the census estimate, Nevada edged out Arizona to once again win the honors of being the fastest-growing state; its population is up 3.5 percent from last year. Eight of the 10 most rapidly growing states are in the South or West. Rhode Island and New York also lost residents this year.

By all accounts, even with the market cooling here in recent months, the high cost of housing in Massachusetts drives away many families. Bowles said it's the most frequent complaint of companies and institutions trying to recruit workers, even for jobs with above-average salaries.

In a poll conducted a year ago by the Donahue Institute and the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, 46 percent of respondents said they were ''seriously considering" leaving the state because of the high cost of housing.

As families leave, so do their children. Sum calls it ''losing our future."

In an interview yesterday, Governor Mitt Romney said that restrictive zoning laws in Massachusetts communities are part of the reason why other states are able to grow and build more housing.

''I think everybody's in favor of growth somewhere else, but not in their home, and that's something which cities and towns and their citizens will have to grapple with," he said.

Romney said he believes the state has succeeded in creating some jobs. He said last week that the state had added 35,000 jobs since the economic downturn in 2001, though Massachusetts lost more than 200,000 during the downturn and shed jobs in August, September, and October of this year.

''I believe we're making progress and we're doing well, but we can do better," he said.

But Bowles said that other states -- North Carolina, for one -- are being very aggressive in attracting and keeping businesses.

To turn things around, Goodman said, Massachusetts should invest more in higher education and do more to help new immigrants learn English and gain new skills. Romney and legislative leaders have proposed spending tens of millions of dollars more to enhance technology development and education in the University of Massachusetts system.

Bowles also pointed out two demographic trends that could cause even more Massachusetts residents to leave over the next decade. First, he said, some of the state's retiring baby boomers are likely to flee to warmer climes. In addition, he said, research has shown that highly skilled workers who move for jobs are willing to move again, meaning that Massachusetts may not necessarily keep those who have sought employment here.

Massachusetts already has four fewer congressional seats, which are determined based on population, than it did 50 years ago. It's possible the state will lose another after the 2010 Census.

US Representative James P. McGovern, a Democrat from Worcester, said such a loss would diminish the state's influence in Washington, D.C.

''This is serious, I think, because at the end of the day, everybody you lose takes away some of your clout and some of your power," he said.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Massachusetts needs to be far more aggressive about making sure its immigrants and its college students are counted in 2010 and devising an economic strategy that will attract businesses and keep them here.

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