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Erie County’s population stabilizes after years of losses

The population decline in Erie County has slowed the past couple of years, as fewer people than before are leaving and more immigrants are arriving, the latest estimates from the Census Bureau show.

Estimates show the county’s population may have actually gone up slightly – by nearly 600 people – in 2011, before dipping by more than 500 people last year.

In essence, that leaves the county’s population virtually flat – or up by a few dozen people – since the 2010 Census.

That is not exactly a huge victory. In fact, Niagara County continued to lose people the past two years, according to the estimates, so the region continues to decline.

But for Erie County, which has been hemorrhaging population for decades, the numbers are at least worth noting.

“We’re still – based on the estimates – ahead of where we were two years ago, and I think that’s a very good sign,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

The county executive has mentioned the figures publicly in recent weeks. He views the estimates – along with favorable employment, home sales and construction numbers – as an indication the county is headed in the right direction.

“To have any stabilization and minor growth is a good thing when you haven’t seen it in so long,” Poloncarz said. “For decades before, it seemed like Erie County was dropping on an annual basis.”

Others warn, however, that it is too early to declare this a trend just yet.

“I find it very hard to read anything into it,” said Jan Vink, a research specialist for Cornell University’s Program on Applied Demographics.

Vink, who reviews the census figures for the state, said it is hard to draw conclusions from two years of estimates, particularly because migration can be so hard to gauge.

The Census Bureau releases population estimates each year by updating the most recent decennial figures with the latest birth, death and migration data. The bureau has been releasing state, county and local estimates over recent weeks and months.

Erie County’s population essentially has remained flat since the 2010 Census – up by 46 to more than 919,000 people, according to the bureau.

The population decline had been slowing for several years.

In the past five years, the county’s population has dropped an average of 560 people a year. But in the five years prior to that, the population went down an average of 4,300 a year, census estimates show.

Natural increases – more births than deaths – have been a relatively small factor. Since 2010, Erie County reported 21,758 births compared with 21,262 deaths, an increase of just 496 people.

Immigration has helped more. In the past three years, Erie County had a net gain of nearly 6,500 people who came from another country. That is about 70 percent of how many the county took in from overseas during the entire decade of the 2000s.

Buffalo has drawn more refugees the past few years – roughly 1,500 a year – because resettlement agencies have increased their caseloads and because Buffalo has proved to be a good place to start a new life, said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo.

“The refugee and immigrant population is, in my mind, a significant exception to Buffalo’s demographic problem,” Hassett said.

Outward migration to other parts of New York and the rest of the nation also declined in recent years.

In the last five years, Erie County on average suffered a net loss – the number of people moving out versus the number of people moving in – of 2,600 people a year. During the five years before that period, the average net loss was 6,300 people each year.

Demographers attribute the lower migration levels here and around the country to weak housing and job markets, results of the Great Recession.

“With the economy picking up, it’s hard to say whether people will start moving around a little bit more,” Vink said.

None of the counties in Western New York have fared exceptionally well in the estimates since the 2010 Census.

In Niagara County, the population dropped by 1,300, or 0.6 percent, to 215,124.

In Allegany County, the population dropped 1.2 percent to 48,357; Cattaraugus County, down 1.1 percent to 79,458; Chautauqua County, down 1 percent to 133,539; Genesee County, down 0.2 percent to 59,977; Orleans County, down 0.1 percent to 42,836; and Wyoming County, down 0.6 percent to 41,892.

Although Erie County’s population has remained flat, the numbers continue to move up and down from place to place.

The population of Elma went up 1.9 percent, followed by Lancaster, 1.2 percent; Collins, 1.1 percent; and Grand Island, 1 percent.

These towns showed the largest percentage increases since 2010.

Meanwhile, Buffalo, Lackawanna and the City of Tonawanda had the largest declines. The populations in each of these cities dropped 0.7 percent.