The Economy

Stagnant New Mexico a Case Study in Why Economic Policies Matter

Downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico (Sean Pavone/Getty Images)
Until a concerted effort is made to make the state more attractive for businesses, it will remain on the same unhappy trajectory.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released population data showing how the population of America and its 50 states had shifted between 2010 and 2020. As has been the case for decades, Midwestern “Rust Belt” states overall lost representation, while fast-growing states in the Southwest gained seats (Texas added two and Colorado one). For the first time ever, California actually lost a congressional seat.

Yet overlooked by the national media in all of this was what can only be described as the impending creation of a population “donut hole” in the otherwise fast-growing Southwest — that is, my home state of New Mexico.

While Utah and Arizona didn’t add congressional seats as New Mexico’s other neighbors Colorado and Texas did, both states saw double-digit population growth for the decade. New Mexico’s population, on the other hand, grew at just 2.8 percent over that period. That puts the state on par with Vermont and just ahead of Maine, at 2.6 percent.

When neighboring Utah grows at 18.4 percent and Texas grows by 15.9 percent — and your own state’s population barely increases — there must be a problem. Hint: It’s not the weather. A variety of factors have been driving Americans to move from the Northeast to the Southwest, including the search of better weather. But New Mexico’s is unparalleled. It is sunnier than Florida and doesn’t have the oppressive 120-degree summer heat of Phoenix. And it really is a “dry” heat without the muggy humidity of Texas.

As if New Mexico’s minuscule 2.8 percent population growth was not pathetic enough, the details are even more troubling. Over the decade, New Mexico, a state with just over 2 million people, gained 103,506 people over the age of 65. Clearly, the state’s weather, inexpensive housing, and unique cultural offerings are attractive to a certain segment of retirees.

But over the same period, New Mexico lost 71,142 people 64 and younger, including 51,382 residents aged 24 and younger. This kind of population stagnation simply isn’t supposed to happen in the booming American Southwest. It is New Mexico’s slowest growth since statehood in 1912; and, to make matters worse yet, analysts believe that New Mexico could lose overall population when this data is collected again ten years from now.

Could New Mexico, with an ethnically diverse, rapidly aging, slow growing population, in some way serve as an early proxy for the nation as a whole? The United States population still grew by 7.4 percent over the last decade. How, then, did a state located right in the middle of the fastest-growing region of the country perform so poorly? More important, what can be done about it?

First, to begin to appreciate the extent of New Mexico’s problems, we must understand its lack of economic freedom. According to the Fraser Institute’s annual “Economic Freedom of North America” report, New Mexico is in the bottom quartile of U.S. states when it comes to the ability of its residents to keep their hard-earned money and face reasonable economic regulations.

All of New Mexico’s fast-growing neighbors are ranked higher. To be sure, this is notable but unsurprising: High levels of economic freedom are strongly associated with increased population growth.

New Mexico’s path to becoming the “sick man of the American Southwest” is complicated. Unlike California, another state with great weather and physical beauty, but terrible public policies, New Mexico has never been the “it” place to be. For its many flaws, California remains the country’s largest state in population, with dozens of the world’s most-recognizable companies headquartered there.

New Mexico has chosen a different path. Not only do we have no Fortune 500 companies headquartered here, but the state possesses only a few publicly traded corporate headquarters. Instead, since the end of World War II, New Mexico’s economy has been based on a combination of massive federal spending and a robust oil and gas industry.

Whereas California has numerous tech companies and their well-off employees to pay the state’s ever-increasing tax burdens, New Mexico remains among the poorest states in the nation. Of course, it shouldn’t be, but like California, bad public policy holds the land of enchantment back.

By any measuring stick, New Mexico is heavily dependent on federal spending. (According to WalletHub, it is more so than any other state.) Outside of Washington’s largesse, oil is New Mexico’s other major industry. Indeed, New Mexico is the third-biggest-oil-producing state in the nation. Depending on the year, it accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of the state’s budget.

One might expect that having two national nuclear labs — along with their highly educated and well-paid employees — would be a ticket to economic prosperity. Add, too, the billions of dollars in annual tax payments and the jobs and economic activity they bring, and it would seem to most outsiders that New Mexico should be the richest state in the region.

But it turns out that having sound, free-market public policies trumps massive federal “investment” and natural-resource wealth. New Mexico’s lack of economic freedom is a direct result of the state’s political leadership not wanting to do the hard work of adopting the free-market policies that would make New Mexico competitive with its neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With its excellent weather and numerous outdoor and cultural activities, New Mexico remains well-positioned for growth in the years ahead. The state’s fate ultimately lies with the voters who have to decide to elect politicians to the legislature and governor’s mansion who are prepared to enact the free-market policies on which growth depends.

The same is true for New Mexico as it is for California and various other states. Until a concerted effort is made to make the state more attractive as a relocation destination for businesses, it will continue on the same unhappy trajectory. Shedding ourselves of our unseemly title will require dramatic leadership changes. The only outstanding question is whether we’re willing to make it.

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