by Adam Ozimek and Connor O’Brien

Major cities experienced historic rates of population loss in 2021, with 68 percent of large urban counties seeing a decline in population. One factor in this historic outmigration was the rise of remote work, which has reduced the value of living in close proximity to the job opportunities in these large labor markets. Yet a plausible question is whether the net benefit of living in large urban areas for young families in particular has declined. Families, due to their typical size, have larger space requirements, which implies a greater benefit from moving to areas with lower cost of housing and living overall, as well as open spaces. In addition, rising crime and school closures in particular may be weighing on families as well. New data released last week from the Census Bureau for the first time confirms this theory, showing a large outflow of families with young children from large urban areas in 2020 and 2021.

From July 2020 to July 2021, the number of children under five years of age in large urban counties—those intersecting with an urban area of at least 250,000 people—fell by 238,000, a one-year drop of 3.7 percent. Including the early months of the pandemic in 2020, this figure grows even larger. Between 2019 and July 2021, large urban counties saw their under-five population fall by 358,000 children, a decline of 5.4 percent.

While these numbers are stark, one difficulty in interpreting them is that birth rates overall have declined, and the country is taking in fewer immigrants and their families each year. As such, the number of young children overall has declined—between 2010 and 2021, the population of children under five fell by more than 1.3 million, or 6.8 percent, and in 2019 alone, it fell by 207,000, or one percent. Further, large urban areas saw a greater loss of under-five population than other county types before the pandemic. In 2019, large urban areas had seen their under-five growth rates fall to -1.5 percent; however, this change was relatively close to the nationwide average of -1 percent and close to other county types’ growth rates.

The pandemic era sparked a sharp acceleration of these losses, with the rate of decline of children living in large cities exceeding that of the country as a whole and all other county types by a wide margin. Large urban areas saw the under-five population fall by 3.7 percent, compared to 2.4 percent for the country as a whole between 2020 and 2021. In contrast, metro rural and nonmetro rural counties saw only minor declines. On net, the share of the nation’s under-five population located in large urban areas declined by 0.5 percent, while the share located in all other county types increased. 

Families with children have fled the very largest metro areas the fastest

Some high-cost, coastal cities have seen families flee at faster rates than others, and not just those with children under five. Between 2020 and 2021, Manhattan saw a whopping 9.5 percent decline in the number of children under five. San Francisco lost 7.6 percent, and has lost over 10 percent since 2019. In every one of the top 20 most populous counties in the United States, the number of children under five has declined faster than the overall population, and in nearly all of these top metro areas, so too has the count of all children declined (those under 18). 

Across the country, stories and data of declining school enrollment are consistent with these trends. Nationwide, the 2020-2021 school year was the first in two decades in which the share of eligible children enrolled in pre-K programs declined. Despite New York City extending its public preschool program to three year-olds during the pandemic which padded overall numbers, its existing pre-K program for four-year olds saw an enrollment decline of roughly 13,000 students. Chicago’s public preschools saw an initial enrollment decline of over 30 percent in 2020, a decline that has only partially ebbed—in the 2021-22 school year, enrollment still remained 12 percent below 2019 levels. While some of these losses may represent families choosing alternative childcare arrangements, they do lend credence to the population data.

The population data suggests that the shoe has yet to drop for K-12 school districts. While population losses for children under five were worse in large urban areas, trends for children ages five to 17 generally mirrored those of the overall population. This suggests families with older children did not disproportionately exit these parts of the country. Families with children already in K-12 systems may be slower to adjust to the changing value of living in cities, meaning declines will come more slowly. Alternatively, these families may not change migration patterns at all. Yet, even without a continued exit for families, today's smaller crop of children under five will translate to lower K-12 enrollment in years to come. This may compound existing issues with urban school quality. Large urban school districts have been closing the gap for standardized test scores, but still remain far below average for the country as a whole. Most states base education funds on enrollment and as a result, fewer students means fewer education dollars. This creates costly and disruptive adjustment problems like laying off teachers and shutting down schools, which can in turn reduce education quality.

While large urban areas were losing under-five population before the pandemic, this followed what had been a positive trend, as large urban areas performed relatively well in the decade before the pandemic. While the national under-five population shrank 3.1 percent between 2010 and 2019, in large urban counties the decline was just 1.5 percent. Nonmetro rural (-8 percent), metro rural (-5.4 percent), and exurban (-3.4 percent) saw substantially larger declines.

The causes and consequences of the exodus of families from large urban areas remain to be investigated. One important fact is that the percent change in the under-five population among large urban counties is highly correlated to changes in the rest of the population. Importantly, the change in population growth rates from 2019 to 2021 are also highly correlated. In other words, places where growth in the under-five population fell off most compared to the prior trend are also the places where growth in the rest of the population fell most compared to the prior trend. The correlation between these two measures among large urban counties is 0.78.

This result suggests two things. First, the strong correlation with overall population shifts suggests that out-migration, rather than lower birth rates alone, explains a significant portion of the loss of under-five population in large urban areas. Second, given our past research showing remote work is a factor for overall population growth trends in large urban counties, this suggests remote work is a significant factor for family population trends. However, other conditions have affected large urban areas in the pandemic, including the decline in public transit use, schools operating remotely, and the rise of urban crime. Further research will need to be done to investigate which, if any, of these factors have contributed to the exodus of families, and if this is likely to continue or to bounce back.

Geographic Trends  Demographic Trends  Spatial Inequality

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