MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Vermont's population decreased last year for the first time in nearly three-quarters of a century, according to U.S. Census figures, with more people leaving the state than moving in. The exodus is part of a broader trend in which the state's population growth rate has hovered just above zero for several years.
While the fiscal 2012 population decline of 581 people was small, it was the first time since 1944 Vermont lost population, University of Vermont and economist Art Woolf said.
Vermont, with a total population estimated at 626,592, still has more births than deaths. But those changes couldn't offset the 1,726 people who left the state in the year that ended June 30, the statistics show.
The population decline is a challenge for the state's efforts to create good paying jobs.
"We knew this was coming," said Vermont Commerce Secretary Lawrence Miller, who first noticed the trend when the number of students in schools began to decline several years ago. "When you just looked at what was happening in the schools, clearly we were going to hit that point."
More people have been moving out of Vermont than moving in has been a trend for at least a decade, but the 2012 figure was greater than the net number of people who left the state between 2000 and 2009, 1,124, the statistics showed.
"The number itself is not that big of a deal. It's got a negative sign in front of it, which is why it's noticeable, but the difference between losing 500 people and gaining 500 people when you are talking about 620,000 people, it's a rounding error, really," said Woolf. "We need to recognize Vermont is not a very attractive place for people to move to. I think that first and foremost is what people need to come to grips with. Most people think Vermont is such a wonderful place."
Woolf said the population decline means businesses will have a harder time finding employees. And because the state has an aging population, the tax base won't be growing. And, it's young people who tend to innovate and create new businesses.
The trend of small population growth is something Vermont officials have been aware of for some time, said Miller. Demographically, Vermont with its small minority population, is reflecting nationwide trends that show small population growth of the country's majority white population, he said.
"We are conscious of the need to have more Vermonters," Miller said.
He didn't have an explanation about why the number of people leaving the state spiked in 2012, beyond the possibility that people were forced out of the state by housing disruptions caused by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. And, it's possible the growth will become positive again this year, but the need to attract more people to the state remains clear.
"Clearly, our Vermont companies are recruiting heavily. We've got a low unemployment rate. We need more people in our labor force. So I see those things as definitely attracting people," Miller said.
At the same time, heating oil is expensive, making the state less attractive, which is why the state is pushing thermal efficiency. And once the state's single-payer health care system is fully implemented it will make the state more attractive for employers.
The 2012 Vermont population numbers were released by the U.S. Census Bureau late last year. The figures showed that Vermont and Rhode Island were the only two states in the country to lose population.
Rhode Island, with a population of just over 1 million has lost 24,000 people since 2004, the largest decline in state history.
Census Bureau figures show Rhode Islanders moving to other states were the main reason for the population loss.
While the state's overall population is down slightly, census numbers show Rhode Island's Latino population surged over the past decade. Their presence prevented the state's population decline from being far steeper. The state's Latino population shot up 43.9 percent since 2000, according to census numbers. That helped offset a 3.9 percent decline in the non-Hispanic white population.
Prior to 1960, Vermont's population had remained stagnant for about a century, Woolf said. In the 1970s through the 1990s, the population growth was about the same rate as the U.S. population growth.
"So what we're seeing now is that historical pattern of Vermont, if you will, that lasted from 1840 to 1960 is kind of coming back. We are just a state with almost no population growth," Woolf said. "In this case, last year it was negative, but the more important story is that since the year 2000 our population growth has been just tiny compared to the U.S."
AP reporter David Klepper in Providence, R.I., contributed to this story.