LAS VEGAS — Forget Silver State — Nevada should be known as the Transplant State.
The sense that almost everyone in Nevada is from someplace else is supported by hard data. Nevada led the nation in 2010 with the fewest residents who were born in the state, according to U.S. Census figures. And it wasn't even close.
Fewer than one in four Nevadans — 24 percent — took their first breath here. The state with the next fewest natives was Florida, with 35 percent. Arizona had a 38 percent native-born population.
At the other end of the spectrum: Louisiana had 79 percent natives.
Demographers said Nevada's special transient status is almost entirely thanks to its booming growth over the past two decades.
In 1980, the state had 800,000 people, according to state demographer Jeff Hardcastle. It's now home to 2.7 million.
It's not procreation that has led to Nevada's surging population.
From 2000 to 2010, 57 percent of the state's growth came from people relocating from other states. About 17 percent of this migration was international (both legal and illegal). And 26 percent was "natural increase," or more births than deaths, Hardcastle said.
Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies demography and migration patterns, said it reflects a national trend of the population moving west, particularly to the Sunbelt states.
"It was the economic growth, housing opportunities and quality of life" that attracted so many people from elsewhere, Singer said.
Immigration also played a factor. The Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey found that almost 19 percent of Nevada residents were born outside the United States.
The transient nature of our population is both good and bad. No one wants to live in a dying state.
"With so much migration, this kind of dynamism might translate, when times are good, into high productivity, more growth, economic development opportunities, and a young and growing population," Singer said.
But there's a downside too.
The state's high transience means newcomers may not see a need to build community and sometimes make "decisions that reflect the lack of attachments," she said. People might not care about nurturing institutions, like public schools or nonprofit groups, or support diversifying the economy, a process that can take years to pay off.
But if it was economic opportunity that attracted people here, does highest-in-the-nation unemployment and a burst housing bubble mean they're going to flee?
Hardcastle predicted a slight drop in population for this year, but said the number of new residents trading in out-of-state driver's licenses — considered a key indicator of new arrivals — remains relatively steady.
He said the fact that many homeowners are underwater on their mortgages is acting as an anchor, as is the fact that no other region is on a hiring spree for laid-off construction and service industry workers.
Recent U.S. Census figures show 2010 was a historic low nationally for people moving state to state.
Singer, with Brookings, said: "I don't think the economic opportunities are so great elsewhere that we'll see a massive out-migration."
Kin Koerber, an analyst with the U.S. Census Bureau, said in-migration in 2010 for Nevada was estimated to be 102,677. Out-migration was 109,409, within the margin of error for the study.
Paul Enos, a native Nevadan whose great-grandmother was born in Reno in 1915, said he takes pride in the influx of people.
"I think most of them come for economic opportunity, as my family did," he said.
Mike Ward, one of the owners of Native Nevadans Sporting Goods, in northwest Las Vegas, said he and two partners who started the business named it that because they were born and raised here.
"It's the best place to live," he said, noting that when he travels to other cities he notices that the restaurants close too early.
He said natives don't have a secret handshake, but did briefly consider a reporter's suggestion of giving discounts to native Nevadans before dismissing it.
"If I do that, everyone will claim they were born here," Ward said.
He may have been born here, but it wasn't yesterday.
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