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Growth slow in Boston metro area

Minority gains stem net population loss

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 28, 2011

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The population of Boston’s metropolitan area grew by just 3.7 percent over the past decade, far more slowly than the nation and most other large urban areas, according to new US Census Bureau figures.

Despite striking population gains in the city of Boston, the region’s overall population climbed just 161,000 between 2000 and 2010 to 4.5 million. Metro regions in Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta grew by more than 20 percent.

The Boston metro area, which includes five counties in Eastern Massachusetts and two in New Hampshire, remained the 10th largest in the country. The New York metropolitan area has the largest population at 18.9 million, followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Philadelphia.

Demographers said that for most of the decade, residents left the Boston region for other parts of the country, drawn by lower living costs. In the middle of the decade, the state was losing a net of 60,000 residents a year, said Barry Bluestone, dean of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University.

But as housing prices fell and the economy crumbled, the exodus slowed, and by decade’s end the state saw a net influx from other states. That shift, combined with steady immigration throughout the decade, allowed the region to gain population, if only modestly.

“It’s a dramatic change,’’ Bluestone said. “If the census had been taken in 2005, it would have looked very different.’’

The steady drain of Massachusetts residents, who are predominately white, and the striking increase in minority populations reshaped the region’s demographics. While the state’s white population dropped, the numbers of Asians and Hispanics surged 46 percent, and those of blacks climbed 26 percent, changing the face of cities and suburbs alike.

“It’s been a dramatic transformation,’’ said Rachael Cobb, professor of government at Suffolk University.

Massachusetts was one of six states that would not have grown at all without the Hispanic population surge, the Pew Hispanic Center found. The others were Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

The number of Hispanics doubled in 120 Massachusetts towns, from affluent suburbs like Dedham to working-class cities like Revere and Everett.

Nationally, the exploding ranks of Hispanics totaled more than half the nation’s population growth, the Census Bureau reported. The US Hispanic population grew by 43 percent over the decade, rising from 35.3 million to 50.5 million.

The US non-Hispanic population, meanwhile, grew 5 percent, while the number of whites grew just 1 percent. As a result, non-Hispanic whites are now 64 percent of the US population, down from 69 percent a decade ago.

In Boston, the growing number of Hispanics and other minorities pushed the city’s population up more than 28,000 to 617,594, the first time it had topped 600,000 since the 1970s. Boston’s 4.8 percent growth far outpaced its 2.6 percent growth during the 1990s, marking the first time in decades that the city grew faster than the state as a whole.

“It’s clear that strong cities like Boston are healthy and doing well,’’ said Benjamin Forman, research director at MassINC, a Boston think tank. “And even weaker cities in Massachusetts are growing or holding their own.’’

In addition, Boston’s white population dropped only marginally.

And the region’s economy continued to attract young, high-skilled workers.

Still, most of the nation’s large metro areas experienced much more robust growth. The fourth-largest region, Dallas, gained 1.2 million people, or 23.4 percent, while Houston, the sixth-largest, grew by 26 percent to 5.9 million. The Atlanta area also grew by nearly one-quarter.

The New York metro area remained the largest, but it grew at a modest 3.1 percent. The Los Angeles area was second, rising 3.7 percent to 12.8 million. Approximately one out of every 10 people in the United States lived in either the Los Angeles or New York metropolitan areas, the census reported.

Among the fastest-growing metro areas were Palm Coast, Fla.; St. George, Utah; and Las Vegas.

The US population over the past decade increased by 9.7 percent, surpassing the 300 million mark to reach 308.7 million.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.