By August Benzow
The exodus of Americans from large urban areas during the pandemic has been well-documented. Remote work, pandemic specific factors, and the deepening of an underlying trend all spread population from large urban areas to less dense, less expensive parts of the country. Recently released data from the Census Bureau shows that urban exodus was driven by prime working age people, meaning that the labor markets in large urban areas have taken a hit. In addition, the data shows that while the overall trends generally were consistent across race, outmigration was strongest among whites. Accelerated by the pandemic, this trend may in the long-term lead to a new geography of spatial segregation. In this analysis, we utilize the newly released Census data to understand how different groups and different places have been affected by pandemic migration.
- Only 12 percent of large urban counties saw a year-over-year increase in their white population in 2021 compared to 59 percent in 2011 and 37 percent in 2019.
- Hispanics continued to expand their numbers in many parts of the country with 86 percent of counties gaining Hispanics.
- Hispanic populations continued to grow in most large urban counties even if decreases in white populations resulted in overall population loss. New York City was the most notable exception where Hispanic populations declined in the city and expanded in the broader metro.
- Black and Hispanic population growth offset declining white population in small urban and suburban counties.
- The working age population itself was on the move and spread to far more locations than it has in at least a decade. The share of counties gaining prime age workers year-over-year increased from 18 percent in 2011 to 56 percent in 2021.
- For the first time in the last decade, a majority of rural counties outside of metro areas saw a gain in prime age workers year-over-year in 2021. This shows a willingness for workers to move far from urban areas.
- Gains in prime age workers were concentrated in the Mountain West with one-fifth of the national increase in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah alone.
White Americans were the most likely to leave urban areas for far flung locales
In the aggregate, whites were more inclined to move a greater distance from urban areas than Blacks or Hispanics. They were also the group most likely to exit large urban counties. The share of large urban counties gaining white residents fell from 50 percent in 2011 to 12 percent in 2021. Inversely, exurban and non-metro rural counties picked up a much higher share of white residents in 2021 compared to 2011.
The share of these large urban counties that gained Black and Hispanic populations year-over-year 2021 also fell from a decade ago, but a majority of urban counties still saw increases in those two groups. Hispanic population growth continued to dominate the map for all types of counties. Black population growth trends mirrored those of whites with a surge in the share of exurban counties gaining Black residents even though a slightly higher share of suburban counties gained Black residents.
The number of majority-minority large urban counties jumped from 49 percent in 2011 to 56 percent in 2021, in part driven by the steep decline in white residents. Fewer than 10 percent of metro rural and exurban counties were majority-minority in 2021 with only a slight increase from 2011.
This migration of whites out of large urban areas into more rural areas was concentrated in particular regions throughout the country. While some of these regions, like the Mountain West, have seen robust population growth throughout the 2010s, other regions like New England and rural Missouri became more attractive to white newcomers during the pandemic. Appalachia and the Great Plains continued to shed population largely due to white residents leaving, as did some states with Illinois conspicuously not benefiting from growth elsewhere in the Midwest and most of New York not seeing any spillover from New England.
Hispanics continued to expand their numbers in many parts of the country with 86 percent of counties gaining Hispanics, compared to 72 percent that gained Blacks and just 43 percent that gained whites. Hispanics also joined their white counterparts in exiting some urban areas. New York is one example where every borough except Staten Island lost thousands of Hispanic residents while Hispanics were responsible for the largest population increases in many suburban and exurban counties throughout the broader New York metro. Elsewhere in counties like Broward County, Florida (Fort Lauderdale) and Harris County, Texas (Houston) Hispanic populations continued to see substantial increases, but not enough to offset steep declines in their white populations.
The Atlanta metro is a stark example of Black population loss in urban counties alongside rapid growth in suburban counties. Among the metro’s two urban counties, Fulton saw a modest increase in its Black population and neighboring Dekalb lost over 3,000 Black residents. Meanwhile, the largest growth in Black population occurred in the ring of suburban counties surrounding the urban area with the highest Black growth occurring in Gwinnett County. The most geographically concentrated loss of Black residents continued to be in the rural Deep South. While the available data does not indicate where departing residents are moving to, many urban areas in these Deep South states also lost Black residents or saw very slight growth, suggesting that Black Americans may be exiting the Deep South entirely or concentrating in relatively fewer poles of opportunity.
Large urban counties were the only county type to see net population loss of every group, although Hispanic population changes were almost a net positive in those counties. While white Americans also departed from small urban areas in large numbers, those counties continued to attract Blacks and Hispanics. For the latter it was where they saw the highest net population growth after suburban counties. A 0.4 percent national decline in the non-Hispanic white population from 2020 to 2021 translated to reductions in their numbers everywhere except in counties on the edge of metropolitan areas.
This population churn means prime age workers are more dispersed now
From 2012 to 2017, increasing shares of counties of all types except large urban counties saw growth in prime age workers, expanding the geography of areas gaining these workers. This trend stabilized from 2017 to 2020 with little change in the share of counties gaining prime age workers for most county types. Since 2020, the trend seen from 2012 to 2017 has accelerated as an exodus of workers from large urban counties has translated to gains for counties of all types, especially rural and exurban ones.
In the early 2010s, most counties were losing prime age workers (25-54) as large urban counties successfully attracted new residents from far flung areas. This changed dramatically by the end of the decade. The share of counties gaining prime age workers year-over-year increased from 18 percent in 2011 to 56 percent in 2021. Among those that were gaining workers, the average increase fell from 1,100 to 470, indicating that increases were spread more thinly across a greater number of counties.
In 2011, less than 20 percent of rural and exurban counties were gaining these workers; instead 81 percent of large urban counties experienced increases. Even counties that had been suffering from decades of depopulation, such as Milwaukee, WI, or Baltimore city, MD, rode the early 2010s wave. Yet for many large urban counties, this legacy city rebound was short-lived. Both Milwaukee and Baltimore lost thousands of prime age residents from 2020 to 2021 alone.
After steadily decreasing since 2016, the share of large urban counties gaining prime age workers year-over-year dropped to 32 percent in 2021. Even more economically successful counties like King County, Washington (Seattle) saw losses comparable to many legacy counties. Exurban counties were the biggest beneficiaries of this trend with 76 percent gaining prime age workers. They also had the highest net increase of 160,000 prime age workers, while large urban counties lost 560,000. Small urban counties were the most stable group of counties even during the pandemic with around half gaining prime age workers.
Gains in prime age workers were concentrated in the Mountain West. While Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah are home to 5 percent of the country's population, they saw one-fifth of the national increase in prime age workers. Eastern Texas and Florida also attracted large numbers of these workers. Increases elsewhere in the country tended to be in rural and exurban counties on the edge of large metropolitan areas, such as counties to the north of New York City. Some large urban counties like Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), which lost nearly 50,000 prime age workers, didn’t see that translate to gains in neighboring counties, although it likely contributed to increases elsewhere in the Midwest.
The latest Census data confirms that this wave of migration is driven by workers, the productive heart of local economies. That makes their losses even more significant for affected areas than slowing births or leaving retirees, for example. Population growth is an essential ingredient in a healthy and dynamic economy–the reverse means fewer workers, fewer consumers, and fewer would-be entrepreneurs to stimulate economic growth, making it even more necessary for policymakers to find novel ways to attract the American workforce back to cities. Meanwhile, the exodus of whites from cities and surrounding suburbs to the edges of metropolitan areas and beyond may in the long-term lead to a different map of spatial segregation defined on broader regional scales and a growing disconnect between minority-heavy urban areas and majority white exurbs. Both these trends started before the pandemic and may very well continue for years to come.
Large urban counties intersect with an urban area with a population of 250,000 or higher. If multiple counties intersect the same urban area, the county with the highest population density was selected.
Small urban counties intersect an urban area with a population of 100,000-250,000. If multiple counties intersect the same urban area, the county with the highest population share in a midsize city based on NCES definitions, is classified as small urban and the other counties as suburban.
Suburban counties have an urban area with a population of 50,000 to 100,000. At least 25 percent of the population must be in a large or medium-sized suburb, based on NCES definitions, otherwise it’s classified as exurban. If no population at all is in a large or medium-sized suburb, then it’s classified as rural.
Exurban areas have a population smaller than 50,000, at least 25 percent of their population in a large or medium-sized suburb and must be in a metro with a population of 500,000 or higher.
All remaining metropolitan counties are classified as metro rural and all non-metropolitan counties are classified as non-metro rural.