Arkansas and SEC states see net population gains as out-of-staters move South

January 3-9, 2022

By Wesley Brown


Arkansas and other states across the so-called SEC region are continuing to steady population growth as the South continues to experience a net population gain from out-of-staters coming in from other regions of the U.S., according to Census Bureau’s Vintage 2021 national and state population estimates released on Dec. 21.


Nationally, the population of the United States grew in the past year by 392,665, or 0.1%, the lowest rate since the nation’s founding. The slow rate of growth can be attributed to decreased net international migration, decreased fertility, and increased mortality due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.


“Population growth has been slowing for years because of lower birth rates and decreasing net international migration, all while mortality rates are rising due to the aging of the nation’s population,” said Kristie Wilder, a demographer in the population division at the Census Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. “Now, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this combination has resulted in an historically slow pace of growth.”


Since April 1, 2020, when data from the decennial census was released on Census Day, the nation’s population increased from 331,449,281 to 331,893,745, a gain of 444,464, or 0.13%. When the 2020 Census data was releasing in the spring, Arkansas total population has grown to 3,011,524, up 95,606 or 3.3% from the last decennial census.


Today, the 2021 population estimates show Arkansas continues to grow with a total of 3,025,891, a gain of 0.5% or a gain of 14,367 residents since the from the 10-year census count 20 months ago. That growth would represent the city about the size of Forrest City, which was the state’s 27 largest community based on the 2020 Census.


Following the last census count in April 2020, the state’s growing population base has mostly benefited from strong net migration. Under the Census Bureau’s formula, total population change includes the total number of people migrating to any state plus that state’s natural increase, which includes total births and deaths.



Natural State migrations


Over the past 20 months, Arkansas has seen net migration of 18,458 residents, which includes out-of-staters 17,604 and 854 foreign-born individuals taking up stakes and moving to the Natural State. Arkansas’ natural increase totals, which include the total number of births and deaths, cut the state’s net migration total by 4131. That negative tally came because of the number of deaths at 47,706 exceeding the tally of new babies born in Arkansas at 43,575.


Since Arkansas first eclipsed 3 million residents at the end of 2017, the state has seen a steady gain in population growth as residents from other U.S. states and foreign countries chose to make the nation’s 34th-largest state their latest home. For example, net migration spiked an eye-popping 2,320% from only 195 in 2016 to 4,718 in 2017.


The new Vintage 2021 population data released ahead of Christmas and the New Year also shows that Arkansas is growing at a slightly faster rate than the earlier 10-year census data released in April 2020. The Natural State’s population growth is also well ahead of the national average, which has been impacted by fewer births and more deaths as more than 801,422 people have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020.


Alison Wright, assistant research specialist for the Arkansas Economic Development Institute at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said nationally the U.S. has only grown a fraction since the 2020 Census.  


“This seems to be due to many factors including the effect of COVID-19 on international migration and the death rate,” said Wright. “The birth rate has been slowing for some time and we are now seeing the natural increase show more deaths than births in half of the states, including Arkansas.”


As noted, the South with a population of 127,225,329 was the most populous of the four U.S. regions, encompassing 38.3% of the total national population. It was also the only region that had positive net domestic migration of 657,682, which calculates the movement of people from one area to another within the U.S. between 2020 and 2021.


Wright said the Southern region has increased the most since the 2020 Census mostly due to net migration.  Florida and Texas top the list of the states with the largest net migration.  Specific to Arkansas, the population increased by 0.5% (14,367 people) since the 2020 Census.  The state had a natural decrease of 4,131 during this time period meaning there were 4,131 more deaths than births.  The population gain came from a net migration of 18,458 people to the state.


“Due to COVID-19 many more workers have the ability to work from home and live in a completely different state if they choose. We are seeing this show up in the domestic migration patterns,” said the UA Little Rock demographer.


In addition, the new census data shows 76.8% or 2,322,502 of the more than 3 million people living within Arkansas borders are 18 years or older. The Census Bureau will update population files for Arkansas and other states on sex, race and Hispanic origin in 2022 on a rolling basis.


Other highlights of the new population data show that between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, the nation’s growth was due to natural increase (148,043), which is the number of excess births over deaths, and net international migration (244,622). This is the first time that net international migration (the difference between the number of people moving into the country and out of the country) has exceeded natural increase for a given year.


Also, the voting-age resident population, adults age 18 and over, grew to 258.3 million, comprising 77.8% of the population in 2021. In the last president election where President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump, the U.S. saw the largest increase in voters between two presidential elections on record with 17 million more people voting than in 2016. Altogether, 159,633,396 voted in the November 2020 election, the first time more than 140 million showed up at the polls.


The Northeast region, the least populous of the four regions with a population of 57,159,838 in 2021, experienced a population decrease of -365,795 residents due to natural decrease (-31,052) and negative net domestic migration (-389,638). The West saw a gain in population (35,868) despite losing residents via negative net domestic migration (-144,941). Growth in the West was due to natural increase (143,082) and positive net international migration (38,347).


Between 2020 and 2021, 33 states saw population increases and 17 states and the District of Columbia lost population, 11 of which had losses of over 10,000 people. This is a historically substantial number of states to lose population in year.



COVID-19 impact


Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted international migration patterns both to and from the U.S., resulting in the lowest levels of international migration in decades and affecting the data typically used to measure migration flows. Nationwide, net international migration (NIM) added 247,000 to the nation’s population between 2020 and 2021, according to population estimates through July 1.


This is a notable drop from last decade’s high of 1,049,000 between 2015 and 2016. This is also lower than the 477,000 added between 2019 and 2020, which overlapped with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Most COVID restrictions remained in place over the 2021 estimates year, greatly reducing the movement of people to and from the country, Census Bureau officials said. For example, through June 2021, land borders between the United States, Mexico and Canada remained closed to non-essential travel and three-fourths of U.S. consulates abroad, which issue visas, remained closed.


Travel restrictions from certain countries remained in place and despite changes in immigration policies, the tremendous backlog for issuing visas and settling refugees continued. All these disruptions required an adjustment the latest census data to reflect the impact of COVID-19 on international migration.   




The South, including Arkansas and 15 other states, was the most populous of the four regions with a population of 127,225,329 that encompassed 38.3% of the total national population. It was also the only region that had positive net domestic migration of 657,682 new residents.