New population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that growth in South Jersey has generally come to a halt since 2010, with most towns in Cape May County seeing a drop.

American Community Survey estimates for July 1, 2012, which are being released to the public today, reveal that with a few exceptions, the vast majority of local towns saw either less than 1 percent growth or a drop — a change from the usual 1 percent to 2 percent growth over two years seen in the past.

The yearly estimates are different from the person-by-person census taken every 10 years. The July 1, 2012, estimates are compared with similar estimates from July 1, 2010, and July 1, 2011, all calculated using base figures from the latest 2010 census data.

The entire state is in the bottom half of estimated population growth in the country from 2010-12, at just 0.7 percent. The nation as a whole grew by 1.5 percent.

“Populations are stagnant,” said Michael Busler, a fellow at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “There may be one town up a few hundred, one town down a few hundred, but overall the population is stagnant. It’s not really going to grow until there are employment opportunities for people who move into the area.”

The largest two-year increases by percentage in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties were in Fairfield and Maurice River townships, which saw their estimated populations increase by 269 and 283 people, respectively, for growth of about 4 percent. Pleasantville saw the largest estimated growth by number, at 468 more total residents than in 2010.

“I have a feeling that some of that may be a little bit of the shifting of the population because of the housing crisis,” Busler said. “A large number of people lost their homes due to foreclosure, and they have to go somewhere to live or rent a place. Pleasantville is somewhat attractive because real estate prices and rents are a little bit lower there.”

The unemployment rate is still high in the region, Busler said — 13.1 percent in Atlantic County, according to the latest figures, 13.2 percent in Cumberland County and 12.7 percent in Cape May County — “And as a result, you’re not going to get new people into the area if there are no jobs. ... The way to get population growth up is to provide opportunities, and until we start doing that, it’s going to be difficult for population to increase.”

Part of the problem, he said, “is that we rely so heavy on the tourism industry and the gaming industry. Health care is coming up a little bit, but we need other sources of employment to come into the area.”

Cape May County saw the third-largest estimated drop in population in the state, at just more than 1 percent. Thirteen of the 14 towns with the largest population decreases by percentage in the region were located in the county.

Lower Township, Ocean City and Upper Township all saw estimated decreases from 2010-12 of 316, 164 and 124 residents, respectively, though Lower Township Mayor Mike Beck was skeptical.

Beck cited previous American Community Survey estimates, such as the one from 2008, which showed a 2.7 percent population decrease in the township since 2000 that later turned out to be much different from the hard population count in 2010, which showed no decrease from 2000.

“What you’re dealing with is an estimate,” Beck said. “Not a census. Not door-to-door. ... Frankly, based upon what we saw during the last decade, I’m not sure it’s accurate. I certainly have no reason to believe, based upon anecdotal information, that we’ve lost any people.”

Busler, though, said areas with high-priced housing, such as some of the townships, are more likely to see a decline.

“It’s difficult for someone to move in and buy $300,000 to $400,000 homes under these conditions,” Busler said. “People who want to stay in the area will just move around from one town to another.”

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