by Connor O’Brien
- The exodus of young families from the country’s major urban areas continued into 2022, even as the economy began to normalize.
- The under-five population in the nation’s large urban counties shrank 1.8 percent last year, compared with a 0.7 percent decline nationwide.
- Since the beginning of the pandemic, the cumulative decline of under-five populations in large urban counties is now more than 6 percent—nearly twice the rate of decline nationally.
- Large urban areas are losing families with young children substantially faster than they are losing population overall. While the under-five population in such counties fell 6.1 percent between April 2020 and July 2022, the overall population declined by just 0.9 percent.
- In some of the country’s very largest counties, including New York, Cook County, IL, and Los Angeles, the population of young children is more than 10 percent smaller than in April 2020.
- While the steep national decline in the number of young children has pushed the under-five population down in most types of counties, exurban counties are the only type to have experienced net growth since 2020.
- Out-migration of young families from large and small urban counties has been more severe in the Mid-Atlantic and West Coast, while the under-five population actually grew in urban counties in the Southeast last year.
The recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of remote work, and the changing geography of American industry have all played a role in reshaping the economic and demographic map of the country. Among the most enduring consequences of these trends has been the struggle of major cities across the country to retain residents, particularly families. As an EIG analysis last year found, families with young children (those under five years of age) left large urban counties at a substantially faster rate than other residents, a break from pre-pandemic trends.
New county-level population estimates from the Census Bureau now confirm that this trend, while abating modestly relative to 2021, continued into 2022. By July 2022, the under-five population in large urban counties was 6.1 percent smaller than a mere 27 months earlier in April 2020. While the overall population in large urban counties shrank too, their population fell by less than 1 percent.
Large urban counties continued to see young families leave in 2022, although at a slower pace than the year before
Nationwide, the population of children under five fell by 0.7 percent last year as long-running trends of an aging population and falling birthrate continued. While this trend is bound to affect large parts of the country, it is not impacting every party equally. Instead, much like overall population shifts post-pandemic, large urban areas are bearing a disproportionate share of the under-five population loss. Indeed, they are losing families with young children much faster than they are losing population overall.
Between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, large urban counties—counties which intersect with an urban area of at least 250,000 people—experienced a sharp drop in their under-five population. After falling by more than 235,000 during that span (3.7 percent), this population fell an additional 106,000 last year, a drop of 1.8 percent.
National birth rates and birth rates by county type remained little changed in the post-pandemic period, while declines from pre-pandemic rates have been nearly uniform across county types. Together, these facts imply most of the changes in the rates of growth of young families were due to changes in migration patterns.
Indeed, young families’ migration trends post-2020 mirrored (and contributed to) movements of the overall population in key ways, but with a much faster relative rate of flight from urban counties and into the suburbs and exurbs.
An important question is whether families with young children were more strongly affected by post-pandemic migration trends or whether the larger impacts on the under-five population are simply due to the national decline in this population. In other words, did large urban areas really see greater out-migration of families, or does the trend just look worse because the number of children under five so rapidly fell across the country as a whole? After all, between April 2020 and July 2022, the overall population grew 0.6 percent while the number of young children fell 3.3 percent.
To compare overall population change with the change in number of young children across county types ranging from large urban to exurban, we should control for differences in their national growth rate. Given that most of the nation’s net population growth is now coming from immigration, the country’s total population will naturally grow faster than (or shrink slower than) the population of young children, since most immigrants are adults. When we account for this fact, we find that differences in total population change and under-five population change are directionally similar, but more extreme for the latter group across most county types. Large urban counties saw a decline in overall population of 0.9 percent between April 2020 and July 2022, while the country as a whole grew 0.6 percent. The disparity between national trends and trends in large urban counties among children was even larger—a decline of 6.1 percent compared with a 3.3 percent decline nationally. Conversely, the total population of exurban counties grew 1.8 percentage points faster than the country as a whole, but these counties’ growth rate in their under-five population was 3.5 percentage points faster than the nation.
Out-migration was worst in the Mid-Atlantic and West Coast, while large urban counties in the Southeast have seen net growth
The out-migration of young families from urban counties was far from uniform across the country. It was most severe in the large urban counties of the Mid-Atlantic, which have seen their population of kids under five drop 10.3 percent since April 2020. Large urban counties on the west coast (the Pacific census division) saw a decline of 8.4 percent over this period. Outflows of young families from urban counties slowed in 2022 in these regions but remained significantly larger than the rest of the country.
Urban counties in the Southeast fared best in retaining or attracting young families. Though the number of young kids living in these counties has fallen slightly since 2020, the drop has been much smaller than the national rate, leaving the region’s urban counties with a larger share of young families than before the pandemic. The South Atlantic (stretching from Maryland south along the Atlantic Coast to Florida) was indeed a magnet for domestic migrants of many types; its population grew by 1.4 million between April 2020 and last July, nearly a half-million more than the West South Central Division (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas), the second-fastest growing division.
The “Donut Effect” is visible even in booming state economies
The emergence of the so-called “donut effect”—or faster population growth in the suburban counties surrounding an urban core—has largely been discussed in the context of remote work, but its fingerprints are evident even in under-five population data. Major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have seen some of the largest declines among young families of any large counties in America, all greater than 10 percent. New York City’s under-five population was 12.5 percent smaller in July 2022 than April 2020.
Nevertheless, the donut effect for families is clearly visible even in state and local economies that are booming. The overall population of Texas grew 3 percent between April 2020 and July 2022—among the fastest in the nation—yet its largest urban counties including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), and Travis (Austin) all saw declining populations of young kids with correspondingly large growth in surrounding suburban counties.
The choices of young families proved especially sensitive to the economic changes and disruptions of the last three years. While labor markets are normalizing and workers are returning to many downtown urban cores, families with kids have thus far not returned to the country’s largest urban counties. As policymakers consider how to respond to a world in which remote work provides many workers with job opportunities outside of traditional urban centers, they should pay close attention to the quality-of-life and cost concerns of young families.