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Bad Times Help Rust Belt Retain Power

A better economy saw people leaving the Midwest and Northeast in droves, taking their votes with them. But bad times mean they stay put — just in time for redistricting.

The state of New York has a lot to mourn in the wake of the Great Recession. The area, like many in the United States' Northeast and Midwest, has been shedding jobs and racking up home foreclosures. The downturn in the economy, though, may leave at least one positive legacy: The Empire State stands, as a result, to lose less of its political power in Washington — for now.

The Census Bureau is set to release new state-level population data on Dec. 31 after this year's headcount, and congressional seats will then be reapportioned in the once-a-decade adjustment. Northerners who had been migrating in droves earlier this decade to the Sun Belt have been forced to stay put the last few years. They couldn't sell their homes or find other jobs.

For New York and several other states that had earlier been projected as the big losers in the next reapportionment, this means they'll cling a little longer to some congressional seats on the bubble.

"For Northern states, the Rust Belt, 'donor states' that had been giving population away, it actually helps us that for right now, our bleeding has slowed down a little bit," said Lisa Neidert, a senior research associate at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research Population Studies Center.

Neidert has made her own projections of what the reapportionment will look like, based on the Census Bureau's most recent population estimates from July of 2009. She is projecting Texas to pick up three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, with Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington each picking up a single seat.

Ohio may be the biggest loser, dropping two seats, while Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York (almost all blue states) each lose one.

If the economy had continued humming along at mid-decade rates — with migration trends continuing apace — New York likely would have lost two seats. Florida, the happy recipient of much of that migration, likely would have picked up three, according to an analysis by University of Michigan demographer Bill Frey.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

That earlier scenario — the one in which the downturn never occurred — would have tipped the balance of political power between two of the country's most populous states, giving Florida for the first time more seats (28 to 26) than New York. Instead, Florida is likely now to pick up only one seat.

The crumbling economy brought about, as Frey wrote, "the greatest migration slowdown since the end of World War II." It similarly slowed external migration from undocumented immigrants, who stopped coming (and in some cases even left) once the jobs dried up, potentially impacting congressional seats in previously construction-heavy states like Nevada.

"Here we had these nice trends of migration and what was going on, and all of a sudden, starting in 2006-07, mid-decade, Florida all of a sudden stopped getting as many people moving in," Neidert said. "Same with Nevada,"

Florida, which had been growing by a few hundred thousand people a year, even lost population in 2008 — its first loss since World War II.

Every decade, Neidert cautions, there are a few surprises in the final numbers, given that most projections are based on population counts snapped nine months before the official census. But because migration ground to a halt in 2008, demographers have had time to adjust their projections of the economy's political fallout.

There remain a few unpredictable factors this year. The number of families doubling up in single residences has grown during the recession, as well as families who have relocated because of foreclosures. And it's not clear if those people followed census instructions to a T (you should be counted where you are staying on April 1, 2010).

"We're used to homeless who live in drainage ditches, or under bridges," Neidert said. "These are people who lost their homes but still have their $50,000 motor homes, and that's all they have left. They're living in a motor home, but have to move because they can't keep it parked in the same place. They're a pretty big population. And where did they fill out their census?"

She also points to one other new demographic: overseas contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The census counts military and government personnel deployed overseas, but not civilians (Utah, for example, likely lost a seat to North Carolina in 2000 because its Mormon missionaries were not counted). And that's a sizable group of people.