After Covid exodus, population trends return to norm
The largest counties in America are beginning to grow again.
The largest counties in America are beginning to grow again after millions moved out of the nation’s population centers in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday morning show most American counties with more than 500,000 residents saw their populations increase over the last year, albeit by an average of just about 1,700 new people.
That represents a stark contrast from 2020-2021, when those counties lost an average of 3,500 residents. In that year, pandemic-era lockdowns drove millions away from the largest cities in the nation, as proximity to work became less important and access to more outdoor space grew as a priority.
“The migration and growth patterns for counties edged closer to pre-pandemic levels this year,” said Christine Hartley, assistant division chief for estimates and projections in the Census Bureau’s Population Division.
Among the 47 counties with more than 1 million residents, 28 shrank in the first year of the pandemic, declining by an average of 13,000 residents. Last year, those largest counties added about 800 residents on average, and 26 of 47 grew.
Still, some of the biggest cities in America continue to experience a population exodus as surrounding counties grow.
Los Angeles County, which has more residents than any other county in the nation, lost 202,000 residents between 2020 and 2021, and another 90,700 between 2021 and 2022.
The populations of the five counties that make up New York City have declined by a combined half a million residents since the 2020 Census. Cook County, Ill., home of Chicago, has lost 166,000 residents. San Francisco and Santa Clara counties each lost more than 60,000 residents, while across the bay Alameda County lost another 53,000.
The counties that include Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, San Diego, Minneapolis, Honolulu, Milwaukee and Portland, Ore., all lost more than 20,000 residents.
“The big urban cores are still not back to where they were, they’re still experiencing quite a bit of outmigration, and the immigration isn’t enough to offset all of that,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociologist at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.
The Census Bureau said smaller counties were more likely to add domestic migrants in the first year of the pandemic, while larger counties imported fewer residents from other areas of the country. That pattern reversed in the last year, as smaller county growth declined and larger counties saw new residents move in.
Even in cities where populations are declining, that decline is slowing. San Francisco lost 57,000 residents in the first year of the pandemic, but only 9,400 over the last year.
“Some urban counties, such as Dallas and San Francisco, saw domestic outmigration at a slower pace between 2021 and 2022, compared to the prior year. Meanwhile, counties with large universities saw their populations fully rebound this year as students returned,” Hartley said.
Recent growth among the largest counties has virtually all come from Sun Belt destinations that are among the fastest-growing areas in the nation. Phoenix’s Maricopa County has added 130,000 residents since the last Census, including 56,000 last year alone.
Houston’s Harris County, Collin and Denton counties north of the Dallas Metroplex, and Polk and Lee counties in Florida all added at least 30,000 new residents between 2021 and 2022.
Of the 30 counties that added the highest number of residents in the last year, 10 are in Texas and 11 are in Florida.
Though growth in the largest counties has been anemic in recent years, those counties are still home to nearly half of the nation: 166 million people live in the 144 counties with populations greater than 500,000, compared with 66 million who live in 2,531 counties where the population is lower than 100,000.
Counties with fewer than 500,000 residents added population between both 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, but those counties saw slower growth in 2021-2022.
Whitman County, Wash., home of Washington State University, grew by the largest percentage of any county in the nation last year, about 10.1%. Five Texas counties — Kaufman, Rockwall and Parker in the Dallas area, Comal outside of San Antonio and Chambers near Houston — were among the 10 fastest-growing counties. So were two counties north of Atlanta, Dawson and Pumpkin, and Brunswick County, N.C., southwest of Wilmington.
Among the fastest-shrinking counties in the nation, Louisiana parishes took four of the top 10 spots. No county lost a greater share of its population than Lassen County, Calif., north of Lake Tahoe, where 6% of the residents moved away.