By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dramatic population shifts over the past decade made the South the nation's fastest growing region for the first time, elbowing out the West, U.S. Census Bureau officials said on Thursday.
Overall, the South and West accounted for 84.4 percent of the U.S. population growth from 2000 to 2010, according to the 2010 Census, which tracks population changes over 10 years.
The figure marked a striking increase compared with the last census, which showed the South and West accounting for 77.0 percent of the total growth from 1990 to 2000.
Census Bureau demographer Marc Perry said the South and West were ahead of the rest of the country in growth for much of the 20th century but until now the West was in the lead.
"What was different this time is that the South was fastest growing," Perry said.
Still, the West managed to push ahead with sheer numbers, surpassing the Midwest as the nation's second most populous region, he said.
The 2010 Census showed that in ten-years time, the South grew by 14.3 million to a total of 114.6 million people. The West increased by 8.7 million to reach 71.9 million people.
Meanwhile, slower growth was seen in the Midwest, where a gain of 2.5 million increased that region's population to 66.9 million. The smallest growth was in the Northeast, which gained 1.7 million to a total population of 55.3 million.
The rate of growth also put the South in the lead, with the region growing 14.3 percent over the past decade, the West 13.8 percent, the Midwest 3.9 percent and the Northeast 3.2 percent.
The Midwest was pockmarked with the nation's most extreme population declines -- more than 9.9 percent -- from lower Arkansas to the Mississippi Delta and from the Dakotas to West Texas.
Nearly as dramatic was the decline seen in some sections of the Northeast, where population dropped as much as 9.9 percent, primarily in western New York, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Economic opportunity seemed to drive the numbers, said Perry.
"Certainly most population growth is heavily influenced by migration, and many people who move are in their working years so job-related conditions are very important," Perry said.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)