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Most American cities experienced their steepest population declines in recent memory as the worst of the coronavirus pandemic swept across the nation last year, a phenomenon caused by a confluence of factors many demographers say they have never seen before.

New analyses of data from the U.S. Census Bureau show 62 of America’s 100 largest counties lost population between July 2020 and July 2021. Most of the largest metropolitan areas in the country experienced their worst growth rates of the entire decade over that year.

The nation’s largest metro areas — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — continued a several-year trend of population loss in the last year, albeit at a faster pace than in recent years. But even fast-growing metroplexes in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta that continued to add population saw far slower growth than they have in recent years.

Demographers who study the geography of America’s population say the declines are attributable to several overlapping factors, exacerbated by the pandemic. In recent decades, young people and migrants have flocked to big cities, before moving out as they advance through life.

But as housing prices shot up, fewer people, particularly in the millennial generation, were able to afford the suburban homes to which they once aspired, leaving them to enjoy the city life for longer than prior cohorts.

“People are always coming in and going out at a pretty constant rate. You can freeze the arrivals so they don’t come in, or freeze the exits so they don’t leave,” said Dowell Myers, a demographer who specializes in housing at the University of Southern California. “With the millennials, we had a clogged drain. They weren’t leaving.”

But the pandemic brought both the new reality of remote work for millions of Americans who hold white-collar jobs and an economic rebound that drove wages up. As those working from home sought more space, they finally found cause to unclog the drain and move to the suburbs.

“What we’re seeing now with a decline in urban growth rates is really centered on issues of domestic migration,” said Cynthia Buckley, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

At the same time, international migrants who once made America’s largest cities their first destinations have slowed, first because of the Great Recession a decade ago, then by Trump-era cuts to immigration levels and finally by the pandemic itself.

“A lot of immigrants to the United States come to big cities. They come to San Jose and San Francisco and Manhattan,” said Melissa Michelson, dean of arts and sciences and a political scientist at Menlo College in the Bay Area. “Some of the drop [in big cities] is because there wasn’t that replenishing of new immigrants to big cities that we would normally see.”

In just the past year, San Francisco’s population dropped by more than 6 percent. Boston’s Suffolk County saw a decline of 3 percent, while the populations of New York City and Washington, D.C., each dropped by more than 2 percent. Los Angeles County, Chicago’s Cook County, Miami-Dade County and the homes of Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Minneapolis were down more than 1 percent over the same period.

Smaller counties, too, are seeing population losses. New York City suburbs like Hudson, Bergen and Essex counties in New Jersey all lost residents in the last year. So did Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland and Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia, all suburbs of Washington, D.C.

While the last decade has been marked by growing metro areas, that changed last year. The Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Boston and Seattle metro areas all lost population for the first time in the last decade, according to an analysis by William Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Demographers cautioned that the population figures represent just one data point and that they should not be taken as proof positive of the end of cities. But many suspect the pandemic, coming at a time of high-speed internet and an increasingly global economy, played a substantial role.

“It played into all of these theories from the early 2000s about how place doesn’t matter anymore because we’re all virtual. And then shazam, we’re all really virtual,” Buckley said in an interview. “You don’t have to be in New York City to get stuff from Zabar’s anymore, and you don’t have to be on Broadway to see a play.”

“We are seeing a bit of the emergence of the decline of place,” Buckley said. “This enables us to move around the country differently, so factors that used to be of marginal importance like weather now become much more important. Communication is much better, transportation is not as much of a problem. And because of that, choices linked to taste play bigger than economic patterns.”

Population decline is not limited to urban centers, as America’s population growth slows to an unprecedented crawl.

Almost three-quarters of the nation’s 3,143 counties experienced a natural population decline in the last year, in which more people died than were born, according to Census Bureau figures released last week.

About 3.4 million Americans died last year, the highest number of deaths ever recorded by the government. And just under 3.6 million children were born over the same time, the lowest number since 1979, when the United States had 100 million fewer people than it does today.

More recently, population loss has been a conundrum for rural America. Over the last decade, the number of Americans living in rural counties declined by 0.6 percent, the first time in history that rural America has actually lost population between two census periods. Over the previous two decades, rural America had grown by nearly 5 million residents, according to Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

Some demographers suspect that at least some of the drop in urban population may be overstated, in part because of undercounts especially among minority and Hispanic communities — who tend to live in the nation’s largest cities. The Census Bureau said earlier this month that the decennial count had missed 3.3 percent of African Americans and 5 percent of Hispanic or Latino populations, both higher error rates than the decade before.

The Trump administration took several steps before the decennial count that may have had an impact on the final tallies. It tried to add a question about citizenship to the census, which may have dissuaded some families with undocumented members from participating, and the administration tried to cut off post-census enumeration — which typically solves some of the undercount — weeks earlier than planned.

“It is in big cities, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, where the folks who are hard to count live. So if you conduct the census in such a way as to severely, and I would argue deliberately, undercount hard-to-count communities, then you are going to get lower population counts in those cities,” Michelson said. “I think that is part of what the Trump administration was doing, was to undercount people of color, to undercount immigrants, to undercount mixed status households.” 

Tags Census Chicago Coronavirus COVID-19 D.C. economy Los Angeles migration New York City Population centers U.S. cities Washington

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