Changing lifestyles and emigration have led to drops in population in U.S. Pacific territories over the past 10 years, new data shows.
The most dramatic population drops have been for American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, with a more than 10% smaller population than a decade ago, while Guam’s population remains comparatively steady.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released 2020 Island Areas Censuses, collected every decade, detail the population changes and number of housing units in the Pacific U.S. Territories, revealing in-country migration and ex-migration patterns.
CNMI’s population dropped to just over 48,000 from almost 54,000, American Samoa’s population dropped to almost 50,000 from 55,000 and Guam’s population decreased by 3.5% to 153,000.
Data collected in the censuses inform planning for schools, hospitals and infrastructure improvements as well as economic development decisions and support for local programs.
For American Samoa, the drop in population is in part due to out-migration, fueled by economic prospects outside the islands. But there was also movement within the territory, as district-based housing numbers indicate increased movement and dispersal of the population.
Though American Samoa's population has decreased, there has been an overall 7.7% increase in housing units. The district with the highest increase in housing was in the territorial capital's Western District, with 21.7% more units, which indicates internal migration. Village or district level population data for 2010 was unavailable for American Samoa.
"Families were quite large but they are not anymore," said Michael Levin, a now retired census worker, who cited a slight shift to a more American style of living conditions for the increase in housing.
Levin, who has done census work in Pacific U.S. territories since the 1970s, cited the closure of some tuna businesses in American Samoa as part of the reason for fewer people living there.
When Levin conducted his work there in the '70s, there was a steady tuna industry that employed thousands, but processing plants and canneries have closed or pared their operations down significantly. Combined with a significant contribution of its population to military service, the ex-migration has been happening since at least 2000, when the population was around 57,000.
"Some recruiters came from the army and signed up 300 people. That's 1% of the population," said Levin. "It's not too surprising. Minimum wage is low so a lot of people have left for (Hawaii) or California."
But the data may be biased, according to the Census Bureau, as field representatives collected data from samples in American Samoa.
Guam faced the smallest population drop of the three Pacific territories, thanks in part to a steady military presence and somewhat steady tourism industry.
The population of Guam has lingered around the 150,000 mark since the turn of the century but the number of households increased.
"Their housing count also went up about 1,000 units which means again that they are having smaller families," said Levin, who now compiles census data with PacificWeb. The number of military personnel also contributed to a younger population.
In CNMI, however, both the population and household numbers told a story of a depressed economy, he said.
Tina Sablan, a Democratic representative in the CNMI Legislature, said that the territory's population and immigration patterns were heavily influenced by an undulating economy.
"Pacific Islander populations are quite mobile but we've seen pretty constant decline since the 2010 census," said Sablan. "A lot of it is a function of the economy. We've been through a series of booms and busts."
The Mariana Islands population has suffered from the closure of high-employing garment factories, collapse of the casino industry, the Covid-19 pandemic and seasonal disasters, including devastating Super Typhoon Yutu last year.
Sablan also noted that those industries called for imported labor from the Philippines, China and Korea.
"I'm curious to what extent the population may have dropped even further since Covid," said Sablan.
The Pacific territorial censuses are conducted with "long-form" questionnaires, akin to the American Community Survey in the states, Puerto Rico and District of Columbia. The American Community Survey is not conducted in the Pacific.
But the pandemic hampered census efforts in the 50 states. Researchers are concerned about the lack of engagement in the American Community Survey, typically surveying 3.5 million households, which could lead to data gaps in the future.
Data in the U.S. territories was collected in the early stages of the pandemic, when all the territories had relatively low case numbers and some were on lockdown, which meant any effects on data collection would be negligible, Levin said.
And in the Pacific territories -- especially CNMI and American Samoa -- the populations were generally more engaged and cooperative with enumerators during the data collection process, he added.
"They generally see the census as an event and are much more willing to open their doors," he said. "Just getting people to answer the questionnaire seemed to be difficult in Guam."
The U.S. Census Bureau has yet to release information other than housing and population in the territories.
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Thomas Heaton is a Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow, a position supported by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Institute for Nonprofit News. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @thomasheaton.