World, Americas

America’s largest metro areas shrinking in population: US Census

‘All across the country, the population in big cities went down,’ says urban planner Bill Fulton of Rice University

Darren Lyn   | 31.03.2022
America’s largest metro areas shrinking in population: US Census

HOUSTON, Texas 

America is witnessing a population decline in its largest metro areas, according to the latest data from the US Census Bureau.

The numbers show that 62 of America’s 100 biggest counties decreased in population between July 2020 and July 2021.

“If you look all across the country, the population in big cities went down,” said urban planner Bill Fulton, the director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The three largest metropolitan areas – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – continued their population loss, a trend Fulton said has been taking place over the past six years.

“We began to see population losses as early as 2016, but that really accelerated during COVID,” he said.

New York’s numbers decreased by 2%, as did Washington, D.C.’s, while Boston’s population fell 3%.

Los Angeles and Chicago saw a drop in population of more than 1%, along with Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Miami and Minneapolis.

But San Francisco’s population fell the most over the past year, by 6%.

“The exodus from the big cities started happening during the (coronavirus) pandemic when people started working remotely,” explained Fulton. “People started saying, ‘If I have to work at home and I don’t have to be close to my job, then why even stay here?’”

Fulton believes the exodus from big cities during the pandemic is primarily due to skyrocketing home prices.

“Home prices really accelerated during COVID, and that accelerated the outward trend of people moving to the suburbs,” he said.

Last year marked the first time in a decade that major metro areas like Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Boston and Miami decreased in population.

Meanwhile, fast-growing urban areas like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta continued to increase in numbers, but their levels of growth have slowed significantly.

“In Houston, the population of Harris County went down, but the population of Fort Bend and Montgomery counties (which are part of the Houston Metro area) went up spectacularly,” Fulton emphasized. “The offset happened in both Houston and Dallas.”

“In the Dallas metro area, the population of Collin County went up a lot, but the city of Dallas’ population went down,” he added.

“Collin County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country and now has a population of almost one million people.”

In addition to inflated housing prices, Fulton said the decreased population may be overstated due to undercounts, especially among Hispanic and minority communities, who usually live in the largest urban areas.

“It’s getting harder and harder to count people in the census, and people of color are hard to count,” he said. “Some are undocumented and don’t want to be found.”

The Census Bureau said its decennial count – taken every 10 years – had missed 5% of Hispanic or Latino populations and 3.3% of African Americans.

The most recent decennial count also added a question about citizenship to the census, which Fulton said may have discouraged undocumented immigrants from taking the survey, therefore contributing to the undercount.

“And even if they are legal, they don’t want to interact with the government,” he said.

“They don’t want to answer the door, and they don’t want to fill out a survey from the government because their experience with their previous country’s government was one that was oppressive.”

Overall population numbers in the US have also decreased. Census figures show that about 3.4 million Americans died last year during the pandemic, the largest number of deaths ever recorded. In addition, nearly 3.6 million children were born during that same time period, the lowest number in 43 years.

However, Fulton believes that over the next two years, the US population will likely increase in big metro areas like Houston due to an influx of refugees from both Afghanistan and Ukraine.

“So we may well see a leveling out of the population, depending how many Afghan and Ukrainian refugees the US takes in,” he said.

“Houston has always been very welcoming of refugees, and so if that welcoming is extended to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, then they will kick up the population in Harris County, where Houston is located.”

Fulton said the undercount can skew the census numbers and emphasized that immigrants will continue to flock to bigger metropolitan areas for various reasons.

“Immigrants tend to go where they have family connections,” he said. “For example, many African immigrants and refugees go to Gulfton in the Houston area because they already have family there.”

“Some of these older neighborhoods in big cities like Houston are less expensive,” he noted. “And bigger cities have jobs. They’re coming for work.”

While Fulton said the decline in population numbers from the latest census is surprising, he doesn’t believe it is a long-term trend.​​​​​​​

“The populations are going down, but they will come back at some point,” he said. “Big cities across the country are not dying.”

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