Arkansas now 33rd largest state by population, Census Bureau estimates show

January 13-19, 2020

By Wesley Brown


U.S. natural increase drops below 1 million for first time


As Arkansas prepares to enter a new year and decade, the Natural State’s resident count has grown enough in the past ten years to populate another city second only in size to Little Rock and surpass the historic three million level.


According to the year-end Census Bureau population estimates released on Dec. 30, Arkansas grew by 3.5% residents between 2010 and 2019, pushing the state’s overall resident count to 3,080,156. That growth now ranks Arkansas as the nation’s 33rd-largest state, sandwiched between the fast-growing state of Nevada at 3,034,392 residents and population-losing Mississippi with 2,976,149 denizens.


According to yearly population data compiled by the U.S. Census, Arkansas first surpassed Mississippi as the 32-largest state in 2016, a year before eclipsing the historic 3 million level for the first time in 2017. In 2018, however, Arkansas lost that position and was leapfrogged by Nevada, which held the 34th spot in the previous year.


Since 2010, when there were 2,915,918 residents in Arkansas, the state has seen a gradual increase in the number of people, mainly in the metropolitan areas in Northwest, Northeast, and Central Arkansas. That rural-to-urban migration, along with an influx of out-of-state and foreign residents, has grown the state’s post-recession population by 101,773, which would easily surpass the state’s second-largest city of Fort Smith by about 13,000 residents.


Diego Caraballo, demographer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Census Data Center, said Arkansas continues to see a possible shifting trend in the state’s population base, which includes the continued growth in the state’s Hispanic population and a rise in the median age of the state’s three million residents. The UALR research group first highlighted that aging trend in 2017, when all but five of the state’s 75 counties included more older Arkansans.


Still, Caraballo also said that Arkansas has not yet experienced the slowing population growth nationally where the number of deaths among aging Baby Boomers in most states is now exceeding the number of new births. That trend, known as “natural increase,” saw the number of U.S. births compared to deaths drop below 1 million for the first time in decades, census estimates show.


“We have not yet experienced that natural increase slowing trend in Arkansas of more deaths than births,” said Caraballo, whose group is housed within UALR’s Arkansas Economic Development Institute (AEDI).


Nationally, the Census Bureau estimates show the nation’s population was 328,239,523 at the end of 2019, growing by 0.5% between 2018 and 2019, or 1,552,022 people. Annual growth peaked at 0.73% this decade in the period between 2014 and 2015. The increase between 2018 and 2019 is a continuation of a multiyear slowdown since that period. 


The South, the largest of the four regions with a population of 125,580,448 in 2019, saw the most significant numeric growth (1,011,015) and%age growth (0.8%) between 2018 and 2019. This growth is driven mainly by natural increase (359,114) and net domestic migration (407,913), which is the movement of people from one area to another within the U.S.


The Northeast region, the smallest of the four areas with a population of 55,982,803 in 2019, saw population decrease for the first time this decade, declining by 63,817 or -0.1%. This decline was due to net domestic migration (-294,331), which offset population gains from natural increase (97,152) and net international migration (134,145), or the difference between the number of people moving into the country and out of the country. 


What stands out in the Natural State is the considerable spike in the number of people from the other 49 states moving to Arkansas and pushing the employment levels to an all-time high.


Since the summer of 2016, the state’s growing population base saw net migration of 4,718 out-of-staters and 3,499 foreign-born residents to Arkansas, pushing yearly totals up notably by 133% from 3,530 in 2016 to 8,217 in 2017. The number of residents from other U.S. states choosing to migrate to Arkansas was even more impressive, spiking an eye-popping 2,320% from only 195 out-of-state migraters to 4,718 in 2017.


Nationally, net international migration continues to decrease, falling to 595,348 between 2018 and 2019. Between 2010 and 2019, the year with the highest net international migration was 2016 at 1,046,709. However, since 2016, the net international migration has been gradually decreasing each year. Overall, between 2018 and 2019, natural increase was 956,674, reflecting 3,791,712 births and 2,835,038 deaths.


Across the U.S., 42 states and the District of Columbia had fewer births in 2019 than 2018, while eight states saw a birth increase. With fewer births in recent years and the number of deaths increasing, the natural growth of births minus deaths has declined steadily over the past decade. 


“While natural increase is the biggest contributor to the U.S. population increase, it has been slowing over the last five years,” said Dr. Sandra Johnson, a demographer/statistician in the Population Division of the Census Bureau, housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce. “Natural increase, or when the number of births is greater than the number of deaths, dropped below 1 million in 2019 for the first time in decades.” 


As noted, 42 and the District of Columbia saw population increases between 2018 and 2019. Ten states lost population between 2018 and 2019, four of which had losses over 10,000 people. The 10 states that lost population were New York (-76,790; -0.4%), Illinois (-51,250; -0.4%), West Virginia (-12,144; -0.7%), Louisiana (-10,896; -0.2%), Connecticut (-6,233; -0.2%), Mississippi (-4,871; -0.2%), Hawaii (-4,721; -0.3%), New Jersey (-3,835; 0.0%), Alaska (-3,594; -0.5%), and Vermont (-369 ; -0.1%). 


Nine states had a population of over 10 million in 2019. Those states were California (39,512,223), Texas (28,995,881), Florida (21,477,737), New York (19,453,561), Pennsylvania (12,801,989), Illinois (12,671,821), Ohio (11,689,100), Georgia (10,617,423) and North Carolina (10,488,084).


Closely tied to the state’s population growth, Arkansas’ civilian labor force at the end of 2019 is also nearing the record of 1,378,339 workers touched in July 2008 before the Great Recession decimated state payrolls. On Dec. 20, the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services reported that the state’s labor pool in November grew by 2,203 to 1,366,004 workers, which includes 1,317,445 people employed and 48,559 seeking work.


Arkansas labor pool nears record employment totals


Arkansas’ labor force data for November, produced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and released each month by DWS, shows Arkansas’ seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased one-tenth of a%age point to 3.5%, just off the state’s record low of 3.4% touched in May 2019.


“The number of employed and unemployed Arkansans increased for the second month in a row, adding to the size of the civilian labor force. While these gains were small, it was enough to push the unemployment rate up one-tenth of a%age point to 3.6%,” said Susan Price, the state’s BLS program operations manager.


Arkansas’ December unemployment report, the final snapshot of the state’s labor marketplace for 2019 and the decade, will be released on Jan. 24.