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2010 census: Alaska's population growth continues to slow

  • Author: Doug O'Harra
  • Updated: May 13, 2016
  • Published January 2, 2011

1230-censusAlaska grew at the slowest rate seen in eight decades and remained the least densely populated state in the nation during the 10 years that ended April 1, according to the first batch of data published by the 2010 U.S. census.

The 49th state's headcount rose by slightly more than 83,000 new residents since the last federal census in 2000, swelling the state's official overall population by 13.3 percent to 710,231.

This increase vaulted Alaska past North Dakota to become the 47th most populous state. Our growth rate was larger than the 9.7 percent reported for the country as a whole. Only 14 states grew faster.

Sound impressive? Think again.

Alaska's population increase over the past decade was almost entirely homegrown, according to the state calculations (PDF) that don't yet include figures from 2010. Between 2000 and 2009, Alaska's natural increase (births minus deaths) added more than 66,000 residents, while the state lost about 1,368 people over the same period to net migration (those fleeing for greener pastures minus those motoring up the Alaska-Canada Highway with hope in their hearts.)

The Great Land may be vast, but its human capital is sized for a town.

Move every current resident to a single location, and we would collectively rival Charlotte, N.C., in raw people power, according to 2009 city estimates. Seventeen other American cities were home to more people than Alaska, as were 85 counties and 46 states. Only Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota reported fewer residents.

To put it another way, Alaska's total population is about the same size as your average Lower 48 congressional district -- of which there were 18 shoehorned into Los Angeles County this past election. Alaskans as a group comprised about 0.23 percent of the 308,745,538 million people counted in the United States.

Let's put that in perspective. If Anchorage's 290,000 or so residents represent the entire country, the Alaskan posse would proportionately total something like 667. They would all fit inside the classrooms of Sand Lake Elementary. They could file into the Discovery Theater at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts and leave open seats. They could throw salmon bakes on the Park Strip and send leftovers home. They could hold a sing-along.

This statistical reality check (or, perhaps, humility lesson) on Alaska's demographic place in the country comes courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau, which spent an estimated $14.7 billion and employed some 800,000 temporary workers to pull off the 23rd decennial national headcount since 1790.

The first data -- with state and national population totals, growth rates, densities and state-level apportionment shifts for the House of Representatives -- were released Dec. 21 in a national media blitz. More details will be published as 2011 unfolds, including local counts needed for legislative redistricting, population demographics and housing, profiles of 63 racial categories, plus enough maps, graphs and tables to make an accountant cross-eyed.

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the census provides the numbers for the United States to redraw its 435 House districts every 10 years so they are roughly equal in population, with each state retaining at least one seat. This statistical profile also helps divvy up more than $400 billion in federal funding and juice everything from sociological analysis to the marketing of breakfast cereal with reams of raw data.

This first release focuses on the political. Partly because people have been moving from the Northeast and Midwest toward the South and West, 18 states will lose or gain seats for the 113th Congress that begins in 2013, a reapportionment that will probably swell the ranks of House Republicans. Texas, for instance, will gain four seats, and Florida will gain two -- both conservative strongholds. Ohio and New York, both carried by President Barack Obama in 2008, will each lose two.

As usual, Alaska will need to remain satisfied with its sole House seat, filled for the past 28 years by Fort Yukon Republican Don Young.

Counting heads: It's what empires must do

The act of counting citizens, usually for purposes of calculating taxes, dates to the Egyptian pharaohs, though the census conducted in China some 4,000 years ago is the oldest still on the books. As one might expect, the Romans raised census taking to a fine art -- the English word "census" derives from the Latin "censere." Look no further than a Jesus-in-the-manger scene for a glimpse of what occurred during one particular census ordered by Augustus. Practically every country or empire has since performed the nit-picky deed.

The mandate to count the citizens of the United States once every decade was written into the first version of the U.S. Constitution, and then, as now, it was aimed at dividing up the seats in the House of Representatives and sharing the common wealth. The first census took place in 1790.

In those days, most of those recorded were the freeborn white males who headed households. Virtually no Native Americans were tallied, and enslaved African-Americans were enumerated as three-fifths of a person.

It was 1850 before census takers began trying to record every member of each household, including women, children and slaves. The 14th Amendment of 1868 removed the odious clause for "fractional" counting of certain residents, along with granting citizenship to all native and naturalized residents, but the census still excluded "Indians not taxed." Finally, in 1940, the U.S. attorney general decided there were no "non taxed Indians" left, and all Native Americans were supposed to join in the fun.

The 2010 national count officially kicked off on Jan. 25 with a staged media event in the remote Inupiat village of Noorvik, on the Kobuk River about 500 miles northwest of Anchorage. U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves and a phalanx of 50 officials and journalists took a 45-mile flight from Kotzebue and then "traveled by dogsled to meet with residents and leaders" -- a journey from the airport to the village school, according to a press release.

Groves later rode a four-wheeler to meet with the first of almost 309 million U.S. residents who would be counted: Village elder Clifton Jackson.

Groves kicked snow off his boots and entered Jackson's metal-roofed house, where he lived alone, to conduct the standard 10-question interview. Since Jackson speaks mostly in his native Inupiaq, his responses had to be translated into English, according to news reports.

"Done. Number one. Only 309 million to go," Groves quipped after leaving Jackson's house, according to stories published around the world. "It's all downhill from now."

Clifton -- then 89, and a veteran of World War II -- told journalists through his niece that he felt honored to be the first person counted.

"It's seemed, to me, OK," he said.

Alaska's "vast, sparsely settled areas" are always the first places to be counted, according to a release.

"Local census takers must get a head start in the remote villages while the frozen ground allows access by bush plane, dogsled and snowmobile. Many residents leave following the spring thaw to fish and hunt or for other warm-weather jobs, making it difficult to get an accurate count."

Census takers would ultimately visit 217 villages across the state. The bureau also hired 2,000 people to go door-to-door to track down the 39 percent of Alaska households that never returned questionnaires by mail, a response rate among the lowest in the nation.

Drilling down into Alaska numbers: Population change

Alaska's official 710,231 residents as of 2010 represent a 12-fold increase over the 55,000 people counted here in 1920, the low census of the 20th century. This enormous growth over the past 90 years was often the most dramatic in the nation in percentage terms.

Alaskans grew in number by 77 percent during the military buildup of the 1940s, and another 75 percent during the 1950s with increased traffic on the Alaska Highway. For the next 30 years, the state population expanded an average of 34.5 percent per decade, scarcely tripping over the mid-1980s oil-triggered crash that saw thousands flee the state for economic reasons.

But the Last Frontier lost some of its allure in the 1990s, when the growth rate dropped to 14 percent and produced a 2000 count of 626,932. This year the rate slipped further, to 13.3 percent.

Population density

Alaska retains its rank as least densely populated -- a somewhat deceptive statistic calculated by dividing the total population into total land area. (After all, most Alaskans live in towns, with most of the surrounding territory virtually uninhabited.)

In 1910, Alaska's population density was the lowest in the nation, reported as one-tenth of a person per square mile. That remained the same until 1950, when it was reported as two-tenths of a person per square mile. (Be still my heart.)

Over the next decades, Alaska grew incrementally more crowded (so to speak), reaching the statistical milestone of one person per square mile in 1990. With the growth rate faltering somewhat, we're now only 1.2 people per square mile. That's about 70 times less dense than the United States as a whole. Even Wyoming, second ranked in this category, is still almost five times more crowded than Alaska.

Apportionment data

Alaska will be limited to one seat in the House of Representatives based on the 2010 headcount -- the same piece of the 435-member pie the state has held since statehood. Having one congressman is a fate shared by six other states, including Montana with about 989,415 residents.

How many more people would Alaska have needed to claim that second seat and give Rep. Don Young some company?

For a purely theoretical answer, we look to tiny Rhode Island, a state smaller in area than the Municipality of Anchorage. With 1,052,567 people as of 2010, Rhode Island is the least populous state with two House seats. To rise to Rhode Island's lofty perch, Alaska would need another 342,336 residents, an increase of almost 50 percent.

Doug O'Harra is an Anchorage writer.

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