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One of the undeniable facts of the past decade is that the nation’s biggest cities had the biggest gains in population.
But demographer Bill Frey has noticed a recent kink in the inexorable growth of the giant metropolitan areas, those with a million or more people. In a recent report for the Brookings Institution, Frey writes that “growth has diminished in recent years” in the nation’s largest cities.
“Major metropolitan areas with populations exceeding one million sustained the biggest growth slowdowns and, in several cases, population losses over the last four years, as have the urban cores within them,” Frey writes.
Does this mean there has been yet another “rural rebound,” with people fleeing cities for the countryside?
Not yet. What we can see is that the steep losses rural communities experienced early in the decade have slowed.
And rural communities have been buoyed by in-migration from other countries and by natural increases in population, that is, by births minus deaths.
The Changing Geography of Growth in the 2010s
We begin with the phenomenon Frey writes about. The chart above shows the population change each year of the last decade in eight geographic groups. Basically, the groups go from the most urban on the left to the most rural on the right.
You can see that the biggest population gains in the first half of the decade were in the nation’s largest metro areas, those with a million people or more.
Meanwhile, rural areas lost ground. In the first half of the decade, the largest rural losses were in counties adjacent to metro regions (the darkest blue line). In the last half of the decade, the rural losses were centered in more remote counties, those that are not adjacent to any metro area.
What Frey noticed was that in the second half of the decade, the gains in the cities of a million or more began to decline. These huge metro areas weren’t losing people. They just weren’t gaining population at the rates seen earlier in the decade.
Meanwhile, medium-size cities and their suburbs were gaining population at a slightly higher rate.
And the losses in rural America diminished, and even reversed in non-metro counties adjacent to metro areas. In those rural counties, there were population gains for three straight years. (See the dark blue line.)
What’s Beneath the Raw Population Figures?
Now let’s look at how these groups of U.S. counties changed in the decade, according to the U.S. Census. This is a story best told with charts. Since this is the Daily Yonder, we begin with rural counties.
The story in rural America in the last decade has been that more people moved out of these communities to other places in the country than moved in. (The “domestic migration” bar is the net of those moving in minus those moving out from within the United States.) There was some natural increase (births minus deaths), but the largest gains in these counties came from migration from other countries.
The above chart shows the change in population from 2010 to 2019 in rural counties that are adjacent to metropolitan areas. You can see that these counties had about 400,000 more people move out to other parts of the U.S. than those who moved in. That is the “Domestic Migration” bar.
These counties had a gain of 189,000 people from other countries, as well as a “natural increase” (births minus deaths) of just over 100,000.
The “most rural” counties (those not adjacent to any metro region) lost over 400,000 people in domestic migration. As you can see above, there were more births than deaths in these counties, leading to a gain of nearly 170,000 people. And these are also counties that benefited from international migration.
Now, on to the cities.
The chart above tells an interesting story. It shows the change in population in the central city counties in metropolitan areas of a million or more people. Yes, there was a huge increase in population overall in these counties, nearly 6.6 million people.
But these counties were net losers in domestic migration. In the decade, just over 1.8 million more people moved out of these counties than moved in. The gain in people came from births and from migration from other countries.
The chart above shows the huge population gain in the decade in the suburban counties of those major metro areas. These counties gained over 7.1 million people. They had more births and a net increase in migration from both from within the nation and from other countries.
There is a small group of counties that are in large metro regions, but most of their population lives in a rural setting. These counties (chart above) gained population, mostly from a net increase in domestic migration.
The central city counties in mid-sized metro regions (those between 250,000 and one million people) also showed gains in the last decade. These gains mostly came from having more births than deaths, but unlike central city counties in the biggest cities, these places benefited from domestic migration.
The suburban counties in these mid-sized cities gained most from domestic migration. In fact, these counties had the largest increase from domestic migration of any of our geographic groups.
This chart shows the steady growth of the nation’s smallest metropolitan areas, those with fewer than 250,000 people. These small cities gained people from all categories.
So what’s happening?
“This recent demographic dispersal can be attributed to an upturn in the economy and, to a lesser degree, the housing market in the last half of the 2010s,” Frey writes. “These factors gave young adult millennials and others the wherewithal to find jobs and homes in suburbs and more parts of the country, which were not available to them in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 to 2009 Great Recession.”
Economist Joe Cortright writes that the slowdown in central city growth later in the decade is a case of housing prices driven up by too little supply and too much demand. People want to live in city centers, he writes, but there simply aren’t places for them to live:
If there were no constraints on the number of people who could live in cities, a simple-minded body count comparison would be a fair representation of revealed preference. But as we’ve pointed out before, the real problem—as abundantly demonstrated by the housing shortage and rising rents—is that we’re bumping up against the limits of the number of people we can fit in cities, and aren’t building new housing (and great urban neighborhoods) fast enough to accommodate the demand.