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Florida passes NY as third largest state at 19.9M people

23rd Dec, 2014back

rst it was this: Orlando beat New York City as the first city to top 50 million visitors.

And now this: Florida is bigger than New York.

Census figures released Tuesday show Florida passed New York as the nation's third largest state with an estimated population of 19.9 million. New York, now fourth, has 19.7 million.

"There are a lot of benchmarks, but this is the biggest one. This puts an exclamation point on it," said William H. Frey, a demographer with The Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

Frey says the milestone caps a decades-long trend of northern migration to the South. In 1950, Florida was a fifth the size of New York. In 1980, New York was about twice as big as Florida.

"It's a symbol of a half-century of Snowbelt to Sunbelt growth," Frey said.

Among other Southern states, North Carolina passed Michigan as the ninth largest state and Georgia, ranked eighth, passed the 10 million mark.

But the numbers are more than just bragging rights. It's also money and politics. Population determines federal funding and congressional seats. In 2010, Florida gained two seats in the House of Representatives while New York lost two.

Florida's population growth is also the result of an improving economy.

"The financial crisis and the housing crisis really ground migration to Florida to a halt," said Sean Snaith, an University of Central Florida economist. "Florida's economy has recovered at a faster pace than the national economy. There are more opportunities for economic migrants coming to Florida and finding work, whereas four years ago that wasn't the case."

The real estate recovery allowed those in other states to sell their homes and move to Florida. The improvement in the stock and bond markets restored some of the wealth and retirement savings of Baby Boomers looking to retire in Florida, Snaith said.

"Since the low point, we've seen a tremendous rebound in the financial assets and wealth by U.S. households," he said.

Florida also benefits from so many residents of New York moving to the Sunshine State, Snaith said. It's like a two-point turnaround: take one from New York, add one to Florida.

"That's one in the loss column for New York and one in the plus column for Florida," Snaith said.

In fact, more people from New York move to Florida than any other state-to-state migration in the country, Frey said.

"In a way, it's just New York moving to Florida," he said.

That long, continuing exodus of New York transplants to Florida includes Eddie Cruz, a 43-year-old pizza maker who moved down from the Bronx about 20 years ago. Now employed at a New York-style pizza restaurant in Orlando, Cruz and his girlfriend followed her parents to Florida and was followed himself by friends.

"They all came down, but they spread out — Oak Ridge, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa," said Cruz. "Visually, Orlando looks the opposite of New York. It's picturesque. There's no trash. The people are nice. I wasn't used to strangers being so nice."

The population exchange between New York and Florida doesn't mean New York is shrinking — only that Florida is growing bigger and faster.

Last year, New York narrowly edged Florida by 98,267 people — forestalling what demographers, and many New Yorkers, knew was inevitable.

"Even though it was inevitable, this is an important milestone and one that will probably continue," Frey said.

Between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014, Florida gained 293,000 people — about the population of the city of Orlando — while New York increased by 51,000, according to Census estimates. In that one year, Florida grew at the rate of 803 people a day.

The Sultani family is part of that migration, moving to Orlando five months ago from Iowa. Originally from Iraq, they left the cold and quiet of the Midwest for the climate and theme-park culture of Orlando.

"The main thing is the weather," said Luma Sultani, 33, whose husband is an engineer. "But there are also more activities for the kids."

In their short time here, the family has frequented Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios. Nothing like that in West Des Moines.

California remains the country's largest state with 38.8 million residents. Texas is second with 27 million.

Both are safe, for awhile at least, with Texas growing right along with Florida and California gaining population primarily through immigration. But California does offer a cautionary tale for growth-happy Florida.

For years, the Golden State exported more people than it had people moving in. In the past year, California had a net out-migration of 32,000 people — largely because of Californians moving to less expensive neighboring states, Frey said.

That could happen here, too, he said, if the state becomes too congested, too expensive, too dangerous: "Florida may eventually become a victim of its own success and have people moving somewhere else."