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Major Cities Continue to Lose Population, While the South Gains

Although population losses have slowed in most major cities, they haven't stopped. New York has lost nearly a half-million people since the start of the pandemic.

The Dallas skyline seen from Dealey Plaza
The Dallas metropolitan area gained more than 150,000 people last year, bringing its total population above 8 million. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • The South continues to pace the nation in population growth, with Atlanta, Dallas and Houston among the big gainers last year.

  • New figures from the Census Bureau reveal continued population losses in the Northeast and Midwest. New York City has lost more than 500,000 residents since the start of the migration.

  • Population losses have started to slow in most major metro areas, with gains last year in Boston, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

  • The nation is continuing its decades-long move to the South and Southwest. Census figures released Thursday revealed that the biggest gainers last year were Southern counties, while older, coastal cities mostly continued to decline.

    The Dallas metropolitan area saw the most growth, adding more than 152,000 residents, bringing its total population to more than 8 million. Metro Houston gained nearly as many, with 140,000 more people, including nearly 54,000 in Harris County alone. Metro Atlanta grew by 68,000, making it the nation’s sixth-largest metro, with 6.3 million people.

    (Vintage 2023 Population Estimates | U.S. Census Bureau)
    Of the 10 counties that grew the most in terms of sheer numbers, eight are in Texas. (The other two are Maricopa County, Ariz., and Polk County, Fla.) Of the 10 that shrunk the most, eight are in California, New York and Pennsylvania, with the other two being Cook County, Ill., and Wayne County, Mich.

    Population declines continued in the nation’s three largest metros — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — but their losses were lower than in previous years. New York City lost 78,000 residents last year. City officials challenged the numbers, saying the Census Bureau had undercounted asylum seekers and people in homeless shelters. Still, the city’s total population loss since the April 2020 census count is nearly 550,000.

    Of the 56 metro areas with populations greater than 1 million, 42 either saw their populations go up, or losses that were lower than during the nadir of the pandemic years, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Many are now seeing less migration out to other U.S. jurisdictions, or gains from immigration.

    Immigration was “the main factor slowing or reversing population losses in large metros in the Northeast and Midwest after an exodus during the pandemic,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Miami-Dade County lost 47,000 residents to other counties, but those losses were more than offset by more than 54,000 new arrivals from abroad.

    Frey notes that the “core counties” in the Boston, Minneapolis and San Francisco metro areas all gained population last year. Washington, D.C., saw growth of more than 1 percent last year, reversing its population loss from earlier in the pandemic. “There are some signs of an urban comeback from the nadir of the peak pandemic year of 2020-2021,” Frey says.

    Most Counties Saw Gains

    San Francisco has been one of the nation’s biggest population losers since the start of the pandemic. The city gained roughly 1,200 people by July 2023, compared to a year earlier, according to the new figures, but that still left it 7 percent smaller than its peak in 2019.

    “From July 2020 to June 2021, as COVID drove many Americans to ditch big cities, domestic migration turned from a trickle out of San Francisco into a fountain,” writes Noah Baustin in The San Francisco Standard.

    About 60 percent of all counties gained population last year, the Census Bureau reports. Growth in Southern counties continued to speed up, gaining 0.56 percent overall last year, compared with 0.31 percent in 2022. Those numbers were practically reversed in the West, with growth slowing down there.

    More Midwestern counties saw growth instead of losses for the first time since 2020. Still, overall the region saw a slight population loss of 0.02 percent. The Northeast lost a slightly higher percentage of its population, with the number of counties that lost population in the region slightly outpacing the gainers.

    “Areas which experienced high levels of domestic out-migration during the pandemic, such as in the Midwest and Northeast, are now seeing more counties with population growth,” said Lauren Bowers, who heads the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Branch. “Meanwhile, county population growth is slowing down out West, such as in Arizona and Idaho.”
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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