demographic trends since the pandemic


June 9, 2022

Changing populations: results of the 2021 census estimates

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States in 2020, many workers began working full-time from home. The expansion of remote work allowed more and more people to see a future in which where they worked and where they lived did not have to be the same. As workers became less attached to their offices in big cities, stories emerged, including from our own awareness, of workers leaving urban cores for more rural areas. But do the stories match what the data tells us?

Each year between decennial censuses, the US Census Bureau produces annual population estimates called Vintage Estimates, which include national, state, and local population estimates and components of change. The most recent county-level estimates for 2021 were released in March 2022 and capture population changes after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article details the results of the latest population estimates and the components of change in the Fifth District.

Where do population changes occur?

The U.S. population grew just 0.1% between July 2020 and July 2021, the slowest annual rate in U.S. history and on the heels of the slowest 10-year growth rate since the 1930s. (See “2020 Census: A look at the fifth arrondissement.”). According to the Census Bureau, the weak growth in 2021 was the result of a decline in immigration and fertility, as well as an increase in mortality due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, 33 states increased in population and 17 states and the District of Columbia lost population between 2020 and 2021. In the fifth district, three states (North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia) increased their population, and two states (Maryland and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia lost their population. Overall, the Fifth District had a higher population growth rate than the United States. (See table below.)

Level change Percent change
District of Colombia -20,043 -2.9
Maryland -7,550 -0.1
North Carolina 93,985 0.9
Caroline from the south 59,976 1.2
Virginia 10,230 0.1
West Virginia -6,839 -0.4
Fifth district 129,759 0.4
United States 392,665 0.1

Source: US Census Bureau 2021 vintage estimates

Within each state, we can also look at population growth in urban and rural geographies. This article uses the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC) from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which breaks down counties into nine different categories. RUCC 1 is the most urban and refers to counties that are part of a large metropolitan area, while RUCC 9 is the most rural and refers to counties that have very little urban population and are not adjacent to areas metropolitan.

In recent decades, population growth has been concentrated in urban areas. However, between 2020 and 2021, major metropolitan areas in the United States shrank for the first time since at least 1990 (caused in large part by outward migration from some of the largest urban centers, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco), while all other areas have seen their populations grow. In contrast, in the Fifth Arrondissement, the major metropolitan areas experienced balanced growth while the more rural areas tended to experience population decline.

For the individual states in the district, population growth varied between urban and rural categories. (See appendix below.) For example, Maryland’s large metropolitan population has fallen (due to the decline of the city of Baltimore and Prince George, Montgomery, and Baltimore counties). In South Carolina, the fastest growing state in the district, metropolitan areas have grown while rural areas have shrunk. North Carolina has seen growth in both urban and rural areas. It is important to note, however, that even within these urban and rural categories, there can be wide variation in county population growth rates.

At the county level, most counties that grew in the 2010-2020 period continued to grow in 2021, and most counties that declined continued to decline. (See map below.) However, several counties, particularly in North Carolina and Virginia, have increased in the past year after a 10-year decline (orange counties), and many of these counties were rural . In Virginia, however, this shift was tempered by a mix of other urban and rural counties that went from positive to negative growth (purple counties). While these changes are generally informative, individual counties may have alternated between positive and negative growth in individual years between 2010 and 2020, and similarly their 2021 growth rate may not persist into 2022. Official intercensal annual population for the period 2010-2020 are expected to be released at the end of 2022.

What are the components of demographic change?

Demographic change is determined by three main factors: natural change (the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths), internal migration and international migration. From 2020 to 2021, most contributions to population growth were caused by natural change and internal migration; international migration has not played a big role. Nationally, major metropolitan areas have declined due to emigration. All other regions have increased in population due to migration. Meanwhile, natural changes contributed positively to population in major metropolitan areas while rural areas had negative rates of natural change.

At the state level in the district, there were variations in the components of change that contributed to population gains and losses. (See Appendix below.) For example, population loss in the District of Columbia and Maryland was driven by inland emigration from urban areas, while population increase to North Carolina was caused by emigration to urban and rural areas. In West Virginia, the state has been losing population overall due to natural declines in both urban and rural areas.

The map below shows the natural rate of change in the district to county level. From 2020 to 2021, the majority of counties had a negative natural rate of change (red counties), meaning there were more deaths than births (290 negative counties versus 75 positive counties). The county with the highest negative rate was Lancaster County, Virginia (RUCC 9), at -15.7, meaning there were 15.7 net deaths per 1,000 population. It was one of 14 counties with a natural rate of change below -10. Counties shown in blue had a positive rate of natural change (more births than deaths). The county with the highest positive rate was Fairfax City, Virginia, (RUCC 1) at 14.0. It was one of two counties with a natural rate of change above 10.

The internal migration rate was positive in most counties (261 positive counties versus 104 negative counties). Counties shown in red had a negative internal migration rate (more people moved than moved in). The county with the highest negative rate was Alexandria City, Va. (RUCC 1), at -39.4, meaning 39.4 people left the city per 1,000 residents. The District of Columbia had the second highest negative migration rate (-33.9). There were 21 other counties with internal migration rates below -10. Counties shown in blue had a positive internal migration rate (more people moved in than moved out). The county with the highest positive rate was Brunswick County, North Carolina (RUCC 2 and seat of Wilmington), at 53.4. There were four counties with an internal migration rate above 40 and another 115 counties with an internal migration rate above 10.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, populations in the United States and the Fifth District have moved between urban and rural areas. As pandemic conditions and work environments continue to evolve, we may continue to see changes in where people decide to live and work. The Census Bureau’s county-level population estimates for 2022 will be released in March 2023. This data will allow us to see if there is a continuation of these trends.


Estimated population growth

Contribution to population growth


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