by Daniel Newman and Kenan Fikri
The pandemic ushered in a period of huge disruption to American life, altering how and where people across the United States live. The U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released 2022 county population estimates provides an opportunity to take stock of the extent to which the map of the country’s population growth has subsequently shifted. In doing so, EIG identified ten high-growth regions that constitute clear population growth winners, adding over 4.3 million new residents from April 2020 to July 2022.
In some respects, pre-existing trends became more entrenched—many counties covering Florida and East Texas continued to grow at a breakneck pace, for instance. Yet in other ways, new patterns emerged that would be wholly unexpected without the push of the pandemic. Footloose remote workers helped power strong growth—at least temporarily—in a variety of communities across the Mountain West and parts of New England, and a desire to escape city living enhanced the draw of the suburbs and exurbs in many metro areas across the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
There are clear regional patterns of strong population growth
This analysis aims to zoom out from the granular level of individual counties to bring regions of high growth into focus. We identify groups of fast-growing counties that share similar geographic or economic characteristics and form largely contiguous regions. To that end, we selected counties that grew faster than the country as a whole from April 2020 to July 2022 (by at least 0.6 percent) and added at least 100 residents (in order to filter out areas where margins of growth were small and small population counties where margins of error could be high). Several dozen counties that met these criteria but did not naturally fit within a region were categorized as “other” for this analysis. In all, EIG identified ten mostly contiguous and clearly regional clusters of counties that exceeded the national trend and boasted significant population gains over the past couple of years.
In this exercise, high-growth regions encompass only counties that added residents. For example, Dallas County, TX, home to the central city, lost population over the study period and is therefore excluded from the totals and growth rates for the East Texas region. We focused only on the positive side of the ledger to capture the magnitude of growth which certain parts of the country were experiencing compared to stagnating population growth nationally.
The pandemic appears to have supercharged growth in most places that were already growing quite quickly, while also boosting the fortunes of some regions that had rather middling increases. In the years immediately preceding the pandemic for example, population growth in the New England region was below the national trend; however, these counties saw a dramatic acceleration to population growth from 2020-22. The Oklahoma-Ozarks region also stands out as benefiting from shifting migration trends, nearly matching the growth rate of the West region in recent years. Indeed, about one-third of counties that are now part of the Oklahoma-Ozarks high-growth region actually lost population from 2017-19, showcasing a dramatic turnaround for many communities therein.
Unpacking the components of population change driving these trends
These fast-growing regions stand out because the country’s total population expanded very little between April 2020 and July 2022, growing by just 1.8 million people. In contrast, the country added more than 3.3 million people from 2017 to 2019. The period of record-low growth was in part the product of a sharp reduction in international immigration, which added just 1.4 million new residents nationally—a reduction of over 430,000 relative to the two years before the pandemic. While international migration would typically play a larger role, the pandemic-related shutdowns to international travel and visa backlogs dramatically curtailed the number of arrivals to the United States over this time period. This compounded an already declining number of international arrivals that peaked in 2016 amid more restrictive federal immigration policies in subsequent years.
Natural growth (the difference between births and deaths) was also anemic, only contributing 431,000 people to the country’s total population and representing a steep drop from the 3 million increase recorded from 2017 to 2019. Deaths even outnumbered births—slowing overall population growth rather than contributing to it—in three high-growth regions that tend to have higher shares of seniors or retired residents: Florida, New England, and Oklahoma-Ozarks.
But these numbers disguise the huge number of domestic moves that took place over this time. Shifting domestic migration patterns drove nearly all of the growth in these regions since April 2020, as more than 3.8 million movers—about 150,000 more than in 2017 to 2019—dramatically shook up the map of where people call home. Unlike at the national scale, domestic migration plays a central role in population change at the county level as people move from one part of the country to another.
The nation’s leading growth areas are Sun Belt mega-regions
The growth of the Sun Belt is really the story of the rise of a few mega-regions. Four dominant high-growth regions emerge from the map of recent population change, covering East Texas, most of Florida, the South Atlantic coast, and a central agglomeration anchored by Atlanta, Nashville, and the Research Triangle of North Carolina. Even as the country as a whole barely grew, these regions each benefited from a mix of strong economic conditions, desirable lifestyle and amenity options, relatively affordable/elastic housing supplies, and as retirement destinations.
The high-growth counties of Florida expanded the fastest, growing by 4.8 percent—nearly nine times faster than the United States overall. The South Atlantic coast region stretching from north of Wilmington, NC, to Jacksonville, FL, was the second-fastest growing region in the country, with population increasing by 4.6 percent. This region had been the fastest growing in the several years immediately preceding the pandemic, and it can be grouped with Florida in some respects as a prime retirement destination that also offers significant economic opportunity for those still in their working years.
The 111 counties making up the East Texas region expanded by 4.3 percent and amassed more new residents than any other—over 885,000 of them. The economically successful region spanning the Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio metro areas has been a prime destination for companies and workers deciding to relocate in recent years. East Texas also enjoyed a healthy rate of natural population increase, likely due to the large number of young professionals and immigrants moving to the region and starting families. Farther east, the South region is another major engine of job creation that is anchored by several major metro areas and covers much of Tennessee, northern Georgia, and large portions of the Piedmont regions of the Carolinas.
While growth in the West and Mountain West actually slowed somewhat relative to pre-pandemic trends, they remained among the fastest growing parts of the country. Both of these regions added approximately 430,000 new residents each over the study period. The rise of remote work played a key role, spurring the creation of “Zoom towns”—particularly in places like Idaho and Montana in recent years—as untethered workers sought out larger and more affordable housing opportunities.
Large urban losses contributed to gains in outlying and recreation-driven areas
Identifying high-growth regions also helps tease out places where population stagnation or loss at the metro scale masks large intra-metro or intra-regional population shifts. Even as the dramatic exodus from large urban counties slowed last year, urban areas have not returned to growth. Instead, many of their residents have sought more affordable housing and other desirable amenities in surrounding counties and rural enclaves even farther afield.
The impact of more local moves can be seen most clearly in the Midwest, where well-defined population growth “donut rings” surround several urban cores. Take the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, where top-line population growth of 0.1 percent masks sharp divisions between the core urban counties and the surrounding suburbs and exurbs. Even as the two core counties lost nearly 37,000 residents, the surrounding counties managed to grow their combined population by more than 41,000. Similar dynamics were at work in St. Louis. In places such as these, growth constituted more of a reshuffling of residents at the metro scale rather than an outright infusion of new individuals. Major urban centers and legacy city cores appeared most susceptible to this sort of hyper-local, zero-sum population redistribution. For its part, Columbus, OH, somewhat bucked the pattern in the region by combining relatively modest population loss in the urban core with rapid organic population gains in outlying areas.
The impact of longer distance moves can be seen clearly in the Mid-Atlantic, where the pandemic expanded the operative geography of the Eastern Seaboard westward, with population filling in all the way to the Appalachian Mountains and the Interstate-81 corridor from Virginia to Central Pennsylvania and up through the Hudson Valley. Large urban counties around Washington, DC, and New York City lost residents on net over the period, with the high-growth counties of the Mid-Atlantic as the likely recipients for a decent portion of them. Recreation communities from the Poconos to the beaches gained population in this region, too.
The pull of recreation and amenities were likely core to the emergence of several of our high-growth regions. Northwest Arkansas may be the economic driver at the center of the Oklahoma-Ozarks region, but recreation opportunities in nearby rural areas contribute to the expansiveness of this emerging population growth pole. The predominantly rural counties that make up most of the New England growth region as well as the upper reaches of the Midwestern one—not to mention much of the Mountain West—can similarly attribute much of their population growth to a renewed appreciation for their natural assets. These regions may not match the growth rates or numbers of behemoths such as East Texas, but relative to their population bases and pre-pandemic trendlines, the shift is significant.
The map of growth is almost certain to evolve in the coming years
The pandemic was a one-time shock that accelerated some pre-existing trends like the growth of the Sun Belt, and also triggered some new ones like the shift towards recreation destinations made possible by the sudden and widespread adoption of remote work. The pandemic prompted Americans to move to a wider variety of places than they had in prior years, if not decades. The growth regions identified here help structure our understanding of where Americans moved during this period and why.
Looking forward, the country’s population growth rate is poised to remain near historic lows. If birth rates and international migration remain depressed, domestic migration will be the driving force shaping the map. And so, while the map of population growth is going to continue to evolve as the country settles into the post-pandemic decade, the growth regions identified here provide a good guide to the parts of the country that are off to a strong start.