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Study: Rural AZ Counties Sustained by Minority Populations

As of 2014, Arizona was home to 2.1 million Hispanics, almost one-third of its population. (Octavio Lopez/Morguefile)
As of 2014, Arizona was home to 2.1 million Hispanics, almost one-third of its population. (Octavio Lopez/Morguefile)
August 8, 2017

NOGALES, Ariz. – Minorities are increasingly becoming the lifeblood of rural Arizona counties - helping many grow and slowing the economic decline of others, according to a new report.

Analysts from Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research firm, crunched the numbers from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey from 1980 to 2015 and found that 99 percent of rural counties in the West saw an increase in populations of Hispanics, other people of color, and foreign-born residents.

Kelly Pohl, a researcher and policy analyst at the firm, and the co-author of the report, says in places where the overall population is down, the influx of young minority families is keeping the school districts open and bolstering the labor force.

"Because minority populations tend to be younger on average than non-Hispanic white populations, they inject youth and cultural diversity and economic vitality into places, some of which would otherwise be shrinking," she explains.

The data show that since 1980, Santa Cruz County, which includes Nogales on the Mexican border, grew 130 percent in total population. La Paz County, which includes Parker, grew 147 percent. One outlier is Greenlee County on the New Mexico border, which shrank by 21 percent.

The rising Hispanic population across the state has begun to change the political landscape in Arizona, with citizens recently voting out controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But signs of a backlash are present as well - evident in the passage of anti-immigrant policies such as SB 10-70, the so-called show-me-your-papers law - which was partially struck down in the courts.

Pohl says the U.S. population is set to become majority-minority by 2044.

"Some communities might not be prepared for an influx of people that are culturally distinct or might not be ready to embrace a changing population," she says. "And I think that it is reflective of some challenges that we're seeing across the country."

Minorities are increasing right alongside non-Hispanic White populations in more than half of rural western counties, in many cases drawn by jobs in manufacturing, tourism and agriculture.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - AZ