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The most urban counties in the US are shrinking

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

Domestic outflow from urban districts accelerated over the past year, but the slowdown in international migration added more to urban district losses, which contracted 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 suburban and suburban areas. However, growth rates slowed in the 2010s, partly because many cities built too little housing to accommodate newcomers. This slowdown resulted in population losses, and in 2020 the city districts shrank even faster than those of the small town and rural districts outside the metropolitan areas.

Internal migration causes most of the changes in local populations, meaning the places that attract new people from other parts of the country grow the fastest. In most countries, the other two components of population change – international migration and “natural increase” (births minus deaths) – have much less impact on local growth and local decline. Among the top 10 fastest growing major metros in 2020, all domestic moving companies gained more than they lost. Still, Boise, Idaho, and Provo-Orem, Utah, have gained few people through international migration, and Cape Coral and North Port, Florida, have had more deaths than births due to their elderly populations.

Of the 110 subways with at least half a million people in 2019, 29 lost 29 people in 2020, compared to 26 in 2019. Five subways lost people in 2020 after growing in 2019: Worcester, Mass .; Poughkeepsie, NY; Baltimore; New Orleans; and Lansing, Me. Two, San Diego and Providence, RI, grew in 2020 after shrinking in 2019.

The top 10 losing out included the country’s three largest metropolitan areas – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – and all 10 lost more domestic moving companies than they had gained. Yet San Jose, California, New York, and San Francisco have higher immigration rates than most other metropolitan areas.

Although internal migration generally drives this ranking, the city’s recent slowdown is due to the decline in international migration rather than the acceleration in internal migration. Over the past decade, urban districts have been losing people to suburbs, smaller towns and rural areas at an ever faster rate. But international migration to urban districts has declined even faster since 2017. Although international migration continues to contribute to urban growth, it has increased much less in 2020 than in 2017 and has less balanced domestic runoff than in previous years.

These new census estimates cover the period from July 1, 2019 to July 1, 2020 and therefore mainly reflect the trends prior to the pandemic outbreak. They are compiled “without incorporating or taking into account the 2020 census results,” which have been published for the nation and for states but not yet for counties. The number of ten-year states differs from the state’s previously published estimates, which illustrates the limitations of the estimates, but also raises concerns about the number of ten-year years.

Ten-year censuses for counties and smaller areas will be released later this year. States will use them for redistribution. The population estimates for the next year should reflect the number of decade years, and this year’s estimates should be revised.

These new census estimates tell a similar story to the United States Postal Service’s change of address data: migration from neighborhoods of many large subways to suburbs and smaller subways.

The migration rates for changes of address for July 2019 to June 2020 correlate quite well with these new census estimates for internal migration. (The correlation is 0.82 for larger metros; a correlation of 1 means perfect relationship and 0 means no relationship.)

The estimates of the census, as well as the address changes of the postal service, showed largely similar trends in all metros last year compared to the previous year. However, the postal service shows higher immigration to North Port and Cape Coral, Florida than the census, while the census reports higher immigration to Austin, Texas, and Boise than the USPS, as well as less emigration from many university cities.

Crucially, changes to the USPS address may not include most of the international steps. Since 2017, when immigration to the United States has declined, internal migration explains more of local population growth. However, the urban districts are more dependent on immigration than other places, so the decline in immigration is a bigger reason for the loss of the urban population.

Jed Kolko is the chief economist at You can follow him on Twitter at @JedKolko.

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