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America’s largest urban counties have gotten a little smaller

The country’s most urban counties have lost population for the second year in a row, according to new census population estimates released Tuesday for the year ending July 1, 2020.

Domestic emigration from urban counties accelerated last year, but it was the slowdown in international migration that contributed more to the loss in urban counties, which declined 0.3 percent.

Urban population growth has slowed since 2012. It rebounded during the Great Recession, as cities became more affordable and the foreclosure crisis hit many suburbs and peri-urban areas. But growth rates slowed throughout the 2010s, in part because many cities built too few homes to accommodate newcomers. This slowdown turned into population losses, and by 2020 urban counties shrank at an even faster rate than small towns and rural counties outside metropolitan areas.

Internal migration drives most of the local population changes, which means that the places that attract new people from elsewhere in the country are growing the fastest. In most places, the other two components of population change – international migration and “natural increase” (births minus deaths) – have much less effect on local growth and decline. Among the 10 fastest growing major metros in 2020, all gained more national moves than they lost. Yet Boise, Idaho, and Provo-Orem, Utah, have gained few people through international migration, and Cape Coral and North Port, Florida have seen more deaths than births due to their older populations.

Of the 110 subways with at least half a million people in 2019, 29 lost people in 2020, up from 26 in 2019. Five subways lost people in 2020 after growing up in 2019: Worcester, Mass .; Poughkeepsie, NY; Baltimore; New Orleans; and Lansing, Michigan Two, San Diego and Providence, RI, increased in 2020 after decreasing in 2019.

The 10 with the largest losses included the country’s three largest subways – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – and the 10 lost more domestic movers than they gained. And yet, San Jose, California, New York, and San Francisco all have higher immigration rates than most other subways.

Although internal migration is generally the driving force behind these rankings, the recent urban slowdown is more due to the decline in international migration than to the acceleration of internal exodus. Over the past decade, and at an accelerating rate, urban counties have consistently lost residents to suburbs, small towns and rural areas. But since 2017, international migration to urban counties has started to drop even faster. Although international migration continues to contribute to urban growth, it added significantly less in 2020 than in 2017, offsetting less domestic exodus than in previous years.

These new census demographic estimates cover the period July 1, 2019 to July 1, 2020 and therefore primarily reflect trends before the outbreak of the pandemic. They were produced “without incorporating or taking into account the results of the 2020 census,” which were released for the nation and for the states, but not yet for the counties. The decennial state counts have diverged from previously released state estimates, illustrating the limitations of the estimates, but also raising concerns about the decadal count.

Decennial counts for counties and small areas will be released later this year; the States will use them for the redistribution. Next year’s population estimates should reflect decennial counts, and this year’s estimates should be revised.

These new census estimates tell a story similar to that seen in United States Postal Service data on address changes: migration out of urban neighborhoods of many large subways to suburbs and smaller subways.

The rates of migration by change of address from July 2019 to June 2020 correspond reasonably well with these new census estimates for internal migration. (The correlation is 0.82 for major metros; a correlation of 1 represents a perfect relationship and 0 represents no relationship.) Census estimates, like postal service address changes, showed broadly similar trends in subways in the most recent year compared to the previous year. However, the Postal Service shows higher in-migration to North Port and Cape Coral, Florida than the census, while the census shows higher in-migration to Austin, Texas and Boise than the ‘USPS, as well as -migration from many college towns.

Importantly, USPS address changes may not include most international moves. Since 2017, while immigration to the United States has declined, domestic migration further explains the growth of the local population. But urban counties depend more than other places on immigration for their growth, so declining immigration is a bigger reason for urban population losses.

Jed Kolko is the Chief Economist at You can follow him on Twitter at @JedKolko.

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