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The Associated Press December 21, 2011, 3:56PM ET

Rhode Island has fastest population decline in US

Rhode Island is losing population faster than any other state, a discouraging distinction that underscores years of economic struggles in the nation's smallest state.

New 2011 census numbers released Wednesday show that Rhode Island's population decreased by 1,300 people from April 2010 to July of this year, a decline of .12 percent.

Rhode Island's population as of July 1 was 1,051,302, according to census figures.

Two other states -- Michigan and Maine -- also lost population but at a slower rate. Overall, the U.S. population grew by 2.8 million, reaching 311.6 million people. Growth was fastest in Washington D.C., Texas and Utah.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee said the numbers likely reflect the state's sluggish economy and its relatively older population. Too many young people leave the state because they don't think they can find careers in Rhode Island, Chafee told The Associated Press.

"We're traditionally first into a recession and last out," said Chafee, an independent. "That's contributing to this. People are going elsewhere to work."

The economic downturn has hit Rhode Island especially hard. The state's unemployment rate for November was 10.5 percent, compared to the national jobless rate of 8.6 percent. Virtually every community has dealt with budget deficits and declines in revenue. Central Falls is seeking bankruptcy protection, and East Providence's finances are under the control of the state budget commission.

Some 14.4 percent of Rhode Islanders are 65 or older, compared to 13 percent nationally.

But Leonard Lardaro, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, said the state's problems go deeper than the recession or a graying citizenry. He said high taxes, high unemployment, poor workforce training programs and ineffective leadership are all to blame.

"A declining population is a vote of no confidence," he said. "We've been losing population since 2004. It's because we've never had the courage to look our problems in the eye."

Chafee said he is determined to reverse the population losses by helping improve the economy and stabilizing the fiscal crises facing local and state governments. He said he'd like to turn Providence into a hub for the life sciences and attract businesses willing to hire young, educated workers.

"My goal is for this to be a hip, happening place," he said. "It's got so much potential."

While the state's overall population is down slightly, census numbers released earlier this year show Rhode Island's Latino population surged over the past decade. Their presence prevented the state's population decline from being far steeper.

The number of Rhode Islanders of Latino origin shot up 43.9 percent since 2000. Latinos now make up 12.4 percent of the state's population.

The percentage of Rhode Islanders of non-Hispanic white background dropped 3.9 percent. Whites now compose 81 percent of the state.

The influx of Latinos helped keep the state's population from falling further, according to Ray Rickman, a former deputy secretary of state and current member of the state's Commission on Reapportionment, which recently proposed changes to the state's political districts to account for population shifts. Rickman said new Latino residents are the main reason the state hasn't already lost its 2nd Congressional District.

"The Irish did this for us once. The Italians did it. The French Canadians did it for us too," he said. "People seldom see the good things immigrants bring -- and this is one of them."

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