June 4, 2022

Eight of Ten Largest U.S. Cities, Including Houston, Lost Population in 2021

Eight of Ten Largest U.S. Cities, Including Houston, Lost Population in 2021

The U.S. Census Bureau released its 2021 population estimates for U.S. cities with a population of over 50,000.  Eight of the ten largest cities lost population in 2021.  In total, nearly a half million people moved out of the ten largest cities.

New York City was far and away the largest, losing over 300,000 residents, about 3.5% of its population.  Only two cities on the top ten list, Phoenix, and San Antonio, managed to post gains, with each growing just under 1%.

Houston, after seeing its population growth slow significantly in the last five years, suffered its first decline in population in decades, losing about 11,000 residents (.5%).  The Census Bureau also estimated that Harris County’s population slightly declined (-4,461, .1%) but that the Houston SMSA continued to grow, adding almost 70,000 new residents for a 1% increase over 2020.  Most of the growth took place in Montgomery and Fort Bend counties.

The Census Bureau estimates that the total US population grew just under 400,000 (.1%), which is the slowest growth rate in the country’s history.  Texas grew by 1.1% (310,000), which was far and away the largest gain of any state.  Florida was second with a 1% increase (211,000).  New York, California and Illinois together lost nearly 700,000 residents.

Of the major cities in Texas, only Fort Worth, in addition to San Antonio, increased its population.  Austin and El Paso were unchanged while Dallas lost over 1% of its population.  Most of the population increase occurred in suburban and exurban counties with Collin, Fort Bend, Williamson, Denton, Montgomery, and Hayes leading the way.

One big red flag on these numbers is the Census Bureau’s estimates on international migration.  It estimated that Texas’ population only increased by 27,000 due to international migration.  Almost all of the border counties saw very modest population increases.  I don’t see how you can square those estimates with what is going on at border.  The estimates are made as of July 1 each year, so perhaps that was before the big surge of border crossings really got underway.  But it certainly raises the question of whether the Census Bureau is accurately taking illegal immigration to the US into account in its estimates.

COVID clearly had some effect on the total population.  During that period (July 1, 2020-June 30, 2021), the CDC estimates that there were about 500,000 excess deaths in the US.  So, that alone would have cut the growth rate by about half.  If we see some mortality displacement, as some epidemiologists and demographers believe, we may have some tail wind on population growth over the next couple of years.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the U.S. is seeing the same long-term trend as other developed countries.  Couples are having fewer children and the days of robust population growth is over.  Some states, like Texas and Florida, will continue to see comparatively more growth.  But even there, growth will slow. There are many implications of a long-term slowdown in population growth.   There are many benefits, like less strain on the planet’s resources, but there will also be many challenges.  Most of our economic and civic institutions are geared for steady and robust population growth the world has seen since the late 18th Century.  Remaking those for the new paradigm will, in many cases, be disruptive and painful.  More on that soon.

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