The U.S. Virgin Islands population is the lowest it’s been in decades, according to figures released Thursday from the 2020 U.S. Census. The total count for the territory is 87,146, which represents a decline of 18 percent from the 2010 population count of 106,405.
Although the depth of the decline may be surprising, a decrease had been predicted, given the anecdotal evidence of an exodus after the closing of the Hovensa oil refinery early in the decade and again after the hurricanes of 2017. Statistics on public school enrollment, which dropped from 15,747 in the 2010-11 school year to 10,718 in 2018-19, also indicated a population decline.
But the 18 percent drop is a dramatic departure from recent years. The V.I. population had been increasing since sometime in the 1930s. From the 1930 to 1940 census, it rose 13.1 percent, from a total of 22,012 to 24,889 people. Subsequent census data – which is gathered every 10 years – showed the population continued to increase up until 2000 when it was 108,612. The increases, especially from 1950 through 1980, were commonly attributed largely to immigration from other islands.
The 2010 census marked the first time a decline was recorded in 70 years, and that drop was just 2 percent.
Frank Mills, director of the Eastern Caribbean Center at the University of the Virgin Islands and the coordinator of census operations in the Virgin Islands, said that community surveys that the center was conducting up until 2016 indicated the population was declining, but he was surprised by the depth of the drop. He thought the 2020 census results would reveal a total population somewhere in the “mid-90’s”, not as low as 87,146.
“We’re still looking at the data” to try to explain the reason behind the decline, he said, adding that the hurricanes and the refinery closure were major factors.
The territory’s shrinking numbers will have consequences for federal funding across a wide spectrum of agencies and programs, since federal grants and other funding is routinely based on population.
“It certainly means less money,” Mills said.
He’s concerned about another result too. Many of the statistics coming out of the Census are calculated per 100,000 persons. That way, the privacy of individuals is protected. Now that the territory has dropped below that mark, it won’t be included in some reports.
“Ultimately, we’re going to end up with fewer tables (of data) because of the disclosure issues they’re concerned about,” Mills said.
The U.S. Census Bureau released the population figures for the Virgin Islands along with those for the other small U.S. island territories. It had released the figures for the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico last spring.
Populations in all four of the small island territories showed declines, but that of the USVI was the largest. The commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands decreased by 12 percent to 47,329; American Samoa showed a 10 percent decline to 49,710; and Guam decreased by 3.5 percent to 153,836.
The 2020 Census was challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in the island territories. On the mainland and in Puerto Rico the count is conducted primarily by phone, mail and internet. In the territories, it is conducted in person, a difficult prospect when people are in lockdown because of a pandemic. The bureau did allow some use of phone surveys in 2020 because of the situation, but the use was limited.
Despite the difficulties, Mills expressed confidence in the accuracy of the surveys and of the overall count.
For the territories, the bureau uses a long-form survey that includes questions on a wide range of demographic information such as education status, income, and housing. On the Mainland and in Puerto Rico, the bureau relies on the American Community Survey, a periodic statistically-based survey to get that kind of data.
The information released this week for the territories was limited to population and the numbers of housing units. A bureau statement said, “the release schedule for the remaining Island Areas Census data products is currently under development.”
While population numbers are down, the number of housing units in the USVI (as well as in Guam and American Samoa) are up.
The USVI registered an additional 1,356 housing units over the past decade, an increase of 2.4 percent over 2010, and a welcome addition in an area that has long faced a housing shortage.
A closer look at the housing data suggests a shift away from cities and traditional population centers. On St. Thomas, the numbers of housing units in Charlotte Amalie decreased nearly 8 percent, while those on the East End grew by almost 19 percent, the Northside by 12.7 percent and the West End by 17.7 percent.
Housing units in central St. John declined by 23.6 percent, but those in Coral Bay increased by 22.4 percent, and in Cruz Bay by 10 percent.
On St. Croix, units in Christiansted declined by 11 percent and those in Frederiksted by 6.5 percent. The increases were scattered.
The territory’s population decline was shared by all three main islands.
The two largest islands were similar. St. Croix’s numbers went from 50,601 in 2010 to 41,004 in 2020, a 19 percent decrease. St. Thomas dropped from 51,634 in 2010 to 42,261 in 2020, a decline of 18.2 percent.
St. John fared better, seeing a drop of 6.9 percent, from 4,170 to 3,881, but its far smaller numbers meant it affected the overall territory statistics only slightly.
Tiny Water Island is included in the report as a subdistrict of St. Thomas. It lost 18 people over the decade, going from a population of 182 to 164.