Most large American cities are continuing to lose people, the US Census Bureau reported, even as many smaller and mid-sized counties are growing. And while politicians (and, increasingly, billionaire investors) like to make hay over the cultural and economic reasons for moving, the most striking aspect of the US’s shifting population isn’t which counties are losing people. It’s the sheer number that are experiencing population loss.
Consider that 48 of West Virginia’s 55 counties lost people, as did 56 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. A majority of the counties in Iowa, Ohio, Mississippi and North Dakota lost population. Northern New England grew, as remote workers fled the expensive metro areas of the Northeast in search of more rustic accommodations. But almost all of upstate New York shrank, as did Western Massachusetts. Even in fast-growing Texas, most of the arid western counties and much of South Texas lost people. So did big stretches of rural Pennsylvania, southwestern Virginia, and all of Puerto Rico.
Some transition of population from place to place is healthy and natural, and the pandemic induced large dislocations in working habits and daily life. And in some expensive metro areas, such as New York and San Francisco, some population loss may be beneficial.
In New York, for example, Manhattan actually gained population between July 2021 and July 2022 as people took advantage of lower prices to move in from the outer boroughs. Compared to the national average, most of those outer-borough neighborhoods (as well as the inner-ring suburbs that also lost people) remain pretty expensive. Over the next few years, prices will fall to reflect the diminished demand and people will return, just as they already have to Manhattan. The result will be a somewhat poorer, somewhat more affordable metro area — that continues to have all the qualities that people who love New York love about it.
Even so, it will be a challenging fiscal environment for local governments, which have pension and other obligations that were undertaken under different circumstances.
The situation is much worse for places that were affordable before the pandemic. Cities and towns in rural Midwest that lose people are looking at a larger fiscal loss, because there’s no guarantee people will return even at lower prices. They could adjust to the smaller population by raising taxes, but that won’t exactly help attract new residents. A permanent loss of population will be a blow to local businesses, too, which will further reduce government revenue.
Even before the pandemic, several large Midwestern cities — most notably St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee — were in a difficult spiral of decline. When demand for living in a place becomes so low that the market price of housing falls below the cost of building a new home, bad things happen. Landlords end up with little financial incentive to invest in the upkeep of their property. (Homeowners are less likely to let their houses fall into disrepair, but the money and sweat equity they put in may be wasted.) Homes stay vacant or get demolished.
The risk is that this dynamic will now spread to a much broader set of communities — smaller towns and suburbs, potentially even Chicago.
In any one of these cases, it’s easy to point to some mix of idiosyncratic factors or policy errors behind the decline. It’s also not so hard to imagine policy tweaks that could make a community more appealing and reverse a cycle of decline.
But this is where scale matters. County A can gain population from County B — but in a country where 47% of all counties are losing people, this is a zero-sum game. The reality is that a huge share of American communities are losing people not just because of specific local conditions, but because the national population growth rate — 0.4% in 2022 — is very, very slow.
Immigration rebounded last year to pre-pandemic levels, which pushed Manhattan and several Sun Belt central cities back into positive population growth. But even pre-pandemic immigration levels remain significantly below those which preceded the Great Recession.
That’s largely a decline in illegal immigration relative to its levels of a few decades ago, which no politician will bemoan. But if the US had replaced that illegal migration with visas for people with in-demand skills, it would have a stronger economy and more resilient communities. Birth rates, meanwhile, have been sliding for a long time, and there’s also been an alarming recent increase in deaths — from Covid, from drug overdoses, from traffic accidents, from homicides and suicides.
The result of this slowdown in population growth is a more challenging landscape for leaders in all kinds of places. It’s easy for partisans to pit Florida against Illinois or Texas against California, or for cities to pit themselves against the suburbs. But the fundamental reality is one of broad decline, in which growth is the exception rather than the rule.
And only national leaders have the power to raise the national level of population growth, which would make life easier for local leaders. There’s no one solution here — making policy more supportive of parents while addressing the frightening decline of life expectancy are both complicated, multifaceted issues. But legal immigration remains a fast-acting and relatively straightforward option that deserves a consideration from Congress, separate from any controversies about asylum-seekers. Educated, skilled workers in particular would help stabilize communities in decline while bolstering the economy as a whole.
There’s no good reason for places to be struggling with population decline even while tens of millions of people want to move to the US. This country can’t and won’t let in everyone who wants to come — but that’s not a good reason to keep all of them out.