March 21, 2012 | Los Angeles Times | Original Article

Once-burgeoning Latino population growth rate dips in many U.S. cities

Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles -- For years, America's growing and mobile Latino population helped transform cities such as Atlanta and Las Vegas as well as many smaller communities. But the deep recession slowed this great dispersion, a new analysis shows, raising economic and political implications.

Between 2000 and 2010, the nation's Latino population jumped 43% to 50.5 million, growing especially fast throughout the South and in smaller metropolitan areas in the Midwest and Northeast. The Latino populations more than tripled in such places as Palm Coast, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and Wausau, Wis. Job opportunities and an influx of new immigrants from Mexico and Latin America helped drive the boom.

But with the economic downturn that began in 2007, the meltdown of the housing market and a slowdown of new foreign arrivals, many of these same communities have seen the Latino growth rates flatten out.

Of 107 metro areas where the number of Latinos doubled between 2000 and 2010, almost all showed a slowdown in population growth by the end of the decade, according to William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed recently updated figures from the Census Bureau.

"It's kind of stopped on a dime," said Frey, author of the new report released Tuesday. "The big turndown in growth is pervasive."

He pointed to such cities as Florida's Palm Coast, a community of about 100,000 whose Latino population surged 19% annually for three years in the middle of the last decade. It rose by just 1.9% in 2010. The Latino growth rate in St. George, Utah, a community of about 73,000, fell from more than 15% in both 2005 and 2006 to 3.3% in 2010. And similar declines occurred in other cities, including Anderson, S.C., and Bend, Ore.

Los Angeles, New York and other major metropolitan areas that have long served as gateways and hubs for immigrants still notched small upticks in Latino growth rates at the end of the decade. In fact, the Latino population in the Los Angeles area, which was flat in 2006 at the peak of the housing market nationally, expanded by 1.5% in 2010. New York showed a similar pattern; its Latino growth slowed in the middle of the decade but was up by 2.4% in 2010.

The reason is that many Latinos who had left the big metropolitan areas to find jobs and cheaper housing in smaller cities earlier in the decade returned to those big cities during the tough economic times, Frey said.

Those gateway cities are "the anchors for new minorities, places where friends and relatives are ready to take in kids, provide social and financial support when times are bad," he said.

He said it was unclear whether the broad distribution of Latinos across the country that occurred through much of the last decade would resume in coming years.

For many places, the question isn't just academic. As Latino populations boomed in many communities in past years, they often brought an influx of labor and a potential new base of customers for retailers and other industries.

"Since both low- and high-skilled Hispanic workers will be important for future economic growth, it will be essential to find ways to restart their migration once the economy revives," Frey said.

There may be political repercussions as well.

The new analysis suggests that political leaders counting on an increasingly large bloc of Latino voters to support their candidates and causes — particularly in the Midwest and the Southeast — may be disappointed.       

"They may make less of a difference than people thought," Frey said.

Beyond its focus on Latinos, the report also examined overall population growth for the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas from 1980 to 2010, showing that the recession slowed or stopped two decades worth of growth for some cities.

Among the findings:

• Metropolitan growth in the Sun Belt and Snow Belt alike fell in the 2000s, after accelerating in the 1990s. Southern and Western metropolitan areas still grew faster than other areas in recent years, but growth slowed most in those large metropolitan areas that grew rapidly during the 1990s. Las Vegas, for example, dropped from 85% growth that decade to 42% growth in the 2000s.

• Suburbs continued to grow more rapidly than cities in the past decade, but growth for both cities and suburbs declined from where they were in the 1990s. Denver, Atlanta and Miami are among metro areas in which suburban growth slowed the most.