To the delight of wonks everywhere, the Census Bureau released its latest population data yesterday. The routine update includes new 2014 estimates for counties and metro areas, allowing us a glimpse at the most recent trends in population growth.
It’s important not to read too deeply into one year’s worth of changes, of course, but the data do add new details to our picture of how the country is growing. And while the latest update contains no big surprises per se, it reaffirms several long-term population trends—many of which policymakers have yet to adequately address.
1. The rural exodus is real
We’ve been hearing for years now that the United States is becoming a country of cities. Not only is this maxim true, but the new Census Bureau data shows just how dramatic the change is.
The census recognizes 381 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the United States, ranging from New York’s tri-state area to Carson City, Nevada. Over the twelve months studied, 78 percent of them gained population. The figure is even higher for the select few metros with more than one million people: Of those 55 regions, just four—Cleveland, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Rochester—saw a net loss over the last year.
The picture is more dismal, however, moving away from urban areas, even relatively minor ones. The United States also has 537 “micropolitan” areas—smaller regions where the main “city” has fewer than 50,000 people (think Tupelo, Mississippi, or Paducah, Kentucky).
These are the places that people are leaving when they move to the bigger cities. Between 2013 and 2014, 55 percent of them saw their population decline, even as the country on the whole grew by more than 2 million people.
2. Rust Belt cities hollowing out
For all the talk of Detroit’s comeback and Cleveland’s “eds and meds” economy, the Census Bureau data show that these places were still losing residents between 2013 and 2014. In that time, nearly 11,000 people left Wayne County, Michigan, which contains Detroit. Similarly, 4,000 moved out of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the central part of the Cleveland metro area.
Still, the decline of these cities isn’t foretelling the decline of their greater regions. Across the postindustrial Midwest, metro populations around these cities continued to grow modestly, even while the urban cores “hollowed out.”
This was the case not only with Detroit, but also Baltimore, Chicago, and St. Louis. In Greater Cleveland, the population of the metro area did decline, but three of the area’s five core counties actually saw increases.
3. Everything’s bigger in Texas
The old saw about the Lone Star State held true in 2013–2014—indeed, the speed at which Texas is adding people makes even other Sun Belt states look geriatric.
Among counties with more than 250,000 people, the top three fastest-growing were all in Texas, as were five of the top ten. Fort Bend County, which contains many southern suburbs of Houston, grew 4.7 percent in one year—a rate virtually unheard of for a county that already had 650,000 people. Harris County, which includes Houston proper, added 89,000 people, about 60 percent more than New York City did.
4. . . . but not necessarily better
Texas also stands out for the way in which its population is changing—in particular, the big gains in sprawling suburban counties. While the state’s big five counties—Harris, Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), Bexar (San Antonio), and Travis (Austin)—are all growing, the suburban and exurban counties in these metro areas are actually growing more quickly.
Fort Bend County, previously mentioned, is one good example of this trend, but hardly the only one. Montgomery, Williamson, Denton, and Collin counties, which comprise the outermost exurban parts of the Houston, Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth areas respectively, all posted annual growth rates above 3 percent.
5. The sprawl continues
The suburbanization trend isn’t unique to Texas, either. Returning to the list of populous counties (250,000-plus), the dominance of outer suburban areas is immediately noticeable. Osceola County, Florida, which contains much of Orlando’s sprawl, is there, as is Loudoun County, Virginia, home to many a subdivision.
Now that the economy is steadily improving, it’s clear that the suburbanizing population trends that were so prevalent before the Great Recession are proving more resilient than many might have thought. What’s more, this seems to be the case, whether you live in a fast-growing part of the country, or a declining one.