Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa. [Image: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Guam See Population Decreases in 2020 Census

The Pacific

On October 28, the Census Bureau released the first 2020 Census United States Island Areas data on the populations of the territories of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI), Guam, and the US Virgin Islands. According to the results, the combined population of all four territories was just under 339,000. In contrast, the 2020 population of the least-populated state, Wyoming, was just under 577,000. The 2020 Census data marked the first decade populations fell in all of the United States’ island territories, with the trend dramatically reflected in Puerto Rico as well.

The population of American Samoa fell from 55,519 residents in 2010 to 49,710 residents in 2020 – a 10.5% drop. Tualauta county in the Western District was the only one of the 14 counties that saw population growth between 2010 and 2020, growing by 9.4%. The population of the American Samoa diaspora in the United States is estimated to be between 150,000 to 160,000 – over three times the size of the population of American Samoa. The majority of the diaspora is concentrated in Alaska, California, Hawaiʻi, Utah, and Washington.

CNMI and Guam also saw dramatic population drops in the 2020 census. CNMI is the smallest of the Island Areas with a population of just over 47,000. The Chamorro, the indigenous people of Guam and CNMI, represent the largest Micronesian community in the United States. These communities are the largest in California, Washington, Florida, Texas, and Nevada. Southern California has the largest Chamorro population outside of Guam and CNMI.

Chamorros have been migrating to Hawaiʻi and the mainland United States since the early 1900s but emigration drastically increased after World War II. The widespread damage caused by Typhoon Karen in 1962 led many Chamorro to leave Guam and join family members in Southern California. Today, residents from Guam and CNMI migrate for better educational and economic opportunities, to join family members, and to access improved healthcare.

Dramatically declining populations can exacerbate the economic difficulties already faced by the Island Areas. Smaller population bases can translate to less tax revenue which in turn affects the provision of government services. Young people are more likely to emigrate in search of education and work, aging the demographics of the islands. Older people tend to contribute less to the economy and require more social support and healthcare, which can perpetuate the cycle of emigration and economic decline. The 2020 demographic data has not been released, but 2010 data shows that all but two municipalities across all four Island Areas saw increases in the median age of residents. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for Island Areas, especially Guam and the US Virgin Islands. The tourism sector was hit especially hard during COVID-19, and this, coupled with increasing emigration, could have long-lasting economic impacts for the US Island Areas.

Lily Schlieman is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa in Pacific Island Studies and Ocean Policy.