By Connor O’Brien
- The apparent out-migration of young families from urban centers during the pandemic and its aftermath differed substantially across racial and ethnic groups.
- Asian families have led the exodus of parents with young children out of the nation’s largest cities. The number of Asian children under five declined by nearly 10 percent between April 2020 and July 2022, the fastest decline of any racial or ethnic group.
- Asian families’ faster relative decline is a stark reversal of the pre-pandemic decade, in which they were among the fastest-growing under-five demographic in large urban counties.
- Hispanic families’ growth in suburbs and exurbs increased post-pandemic, accelerating an existing trend.
- Young white families continued to decline rapidly in absolute numbers, though they notably shifted away from major cities at slower rates than other demographic groups.
- African-American parents and young kids exhibited more muted migration trends, although they still decamped from both urban and rural areas in favor of the suburbs and exurbs.
Introduction and Headline Trends
In previous research, EIG highlighted the continued exodus of families with young children from the nation’s largest cities since early 2020. While the rate of flight appeared to slow into 2022 compared with the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, families have not yet returned. Where trends ultimately settle has large implications for everything from urban school systems to housing policy.
To better understand who is moving where, this post explores population trends across the rural-urban spectrum of counties for each major racial and ethnic group. While precise estimates of county-level migration by race are not available, we use population totals at select points in time to infer the demographics of those who moved. In some cases, the pandemic merely accelerated existing trends; for other groups, the pandemic marked a sharp break in migration patterns.
Underlying these trends is a broader decline in the number of young children (under five) nationwide–again used here as a proxy for young families–falling 7.2 percent between 2012 and 2022 and 3.4 percent between April 2020 and July 2022. This decline is being spearheaded by non-Hispanic white families; the number of white children under five fell 5.6 percent between April 2020 and July 2022, largely due to declining fertility among white women. Notably, the number of young white kids fell across all county types. Overall, only the number of African-American children under five increased nationwide during this period.
Given differences in overall growth rates between racial and ethnic groups, netting out differences in race or ethnicity-specific growth gives us a better picture of the relative compositional shifts in particular types of counties. Between April 2020 and July 2022, we find the largest relative shifts away from large urban counties took place among Asian families, while other groups in general also grew much faster in suburban and exurban counties than in the nation’s largest cities. In this brief, we discuss additional trends by race and ethnicity.
Asian families led the flight from large urban counties in a dramatic reversal of pre-pandemic trends.
In the decade leading up to the pandemic, growth in young children in large urban counties was much faster among Asians than other racial or ethnic groups. However, as the 2010s continued and the population of young children in large urban counties began to outright decline, growth rates among young Asian children began to trend downward towards those of other groups.
Notably, the shock of the pandemic reversed this trend of faster relative growth among young Asian families in major cities; post-pandemic, Asians were the fastest-shrinking group under five in such counties.
This trend was especially pronounced in some of the country’s “superstar” cities. Just between April 2020 and July of last year, Los Angeles County saw its under-five Asian population decline by more than one-fifth. San Francisco and New York also registered declines of more than 15 percent. One major exception to this trend was Clark County, Nevada, a sprawling county centered around Las Vegas, which experienced nearly 24 percent growth in the number of Asian children under five years of age.
Notably, these families’ flight did not appear to spread as far away from urban cores as that of some other groups. Small urban counties gained disproportionately, seeing nearly 10 percent growth in their under-five Asian populations in less than three years. Explosive growth just outside Seattle and counties on the outskirts of the Bay Area, still quite dense themselves, are demonstrative of this trend.
The pandemic accelerated Hispanic families’ shift towards outer suburbs and exurbs.
Unlike the reversal of young Asian families from the fastest-growing group in large urban counties to the fastest-shrinking, the pandemic shock mostly served to accelerate existing trends in the shift of Hispanic families towards suburban and exurban counties. A decade ago, exurban counties’ under-five Hispanic population was growing nearly one percentage point slower than the under-five Hispanic population nationally; last year, it grew at a rate 4.1 percentage points faster than the national total. Growth in suburban and metropolitan rural counties, too, accelerated compared with the national population of young Hispanic children.
The relative acceleration of growth has contributed to a longer-run dispersion of young Hispanic families outside of the country’s largest cities, the Southwest, and California to a wide variety of other types of counties. While a slim majority of young Asian kids remain in large urban counties even after the rapid exodus of the last few years, the same cannot be said for their Hispanic counterparts. Since 2010, the share of Hispanic children under five living in large urban counties has declined from 49.0 percent to 44.3 percent, with the largest corresponding growth in suburban (+1.9 percentage points) and exurban (+1.3 percentage points) over this period.
Young white and Black families exhibited less extreme migration patterns.
The geographic shifts among white and Black families have been more muted. The number of white children under five in large urban counties fell 8.1 percent between April 2020 and July 2022, but this was more due to the overall national decline in this demographic than to young white families disembarking for the suburbs. Black families, too, did shift away from urban cores, but at a slower rate than Hispanic or Asian parents and kids.
One key difference between these two groups in the pandemic era was white families’ faster relative shift towards counties further on the periphery, particularly exurban counties and rural counties outside metro areas. Black families, meanwhile, continued their long-running migration out of the country’s most rural counties and highly-segregated coastal and legacy cities.
Historically, migration has been driven by the pursuit of better economic opportunity, higher wages, and better quality-of-life. Suburbs and exurbs have long attracted families with the prospect of more space and better schools, for example. The massive shock of the pandemic did not fundamentally alter this fact, but it did affect both preferences and possibilities (e.g. with the rise of remote work) dramatically. The population data we have gives us little information on migrants’ economic characteristics, let alone their specific, inevitably-complicated motivations for moving. Nevertheless, the historically-large changes to population trends suggest that the pandemic did alter at least some families’ calculus in key ways–and that its shocks reverberated across racial and ethnic groups differently, reflecting their different starting points, experiences, and geographic footprints.