New Mexico State Road 68 highway

After sunset on New Mexico State Road 68 in December.

(The Center Square) – New Mexico's urban communities are growing in population while its rural area's are shrinking, the latest U.S. Census data show.

Overall, the state grew by 58,343 people in the past decade, but most of that was confined to urban areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The data show this has been a nationwide trend in the last ten years.

Out of the New Mexico’s 33 counties, 20 of them saw more people leave than move in.

Why are rural areas losing population?

“It might be because there are relatively better opportunities elsewhere, as you can imagine; maybe more opportunities in some of the bigger cities in the state or potentially out of state,” Michael O'Donnell, acting director at the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, told The Center Square. “We’ve seen population losses to places like Texas and Arizona.”

O’Donnell said loss of population impacts what is going on in those places.

“You lose population, an already thin labor force becomes thinner,” he said.

He notes rural populations tend to be aging because it's the younger people moving out. Those younger than 35, at an age where they have mobility and are looking for a place to plant themselves, leave, he said.

“What that translates into ultimately, is that you have fewer people there, fewer people to stimulate the economy, to demand products, to contribute to a more vibrant place,” O’Donnell said. “And so that seems over the past decade, two decades or so, to be what we’ve seen, and this isn’t unique necessarily to New Mexico. This is a story that’s been going on in a lot of the country.”

The pandemic threw a curveball, however, when many urban dwellers left the close confines of cities searching for more social distance in rural towns. O’Donnell said this is an interesting point.

“The ability of a lot of workers who would otherwise have had to work in larger metropolitan places – people working in professional and technical services or people that in principle could not work in a brick and mortar office – were given the option to work away from some of these places,” he said.

Rural communities could capitalize on this if they are prepared, he said.

“I think that one of the things that people have talked about for a long time – and economic development has tried to push and pursue – is really good internet, so broadband connectivity, high speed.”

Having a good buildout and capacity for information technology and the availability of reliable and fast broadband has been an economic development necessity for a long time.

“It might not be 100% a game changer because some people might not necessarily want to move to the middle of nowhere in some of these places, but for some people I think that’s an attractive option,” he said.