US population growth in 2021 slows at unprecedented rate

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The US Census Bureau released new population data on March 24, revealing unprecedented trends and a sharp reversal from just a decade ago.

According to a press release announcing the Vintage 2021 population estimates, “Over 73% (2,297) of U.S. counties experienced natural decline in 2021, compared to 45.5% in 2019 and 55.5% in 2020.”

“Natural decline occurs when there are more deaths than births in a population over a given period. In 2021, fewer births, an aging population and increased mortality – intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic – have contributed to an increase in natural decay,” the statement continued.

[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

Media coverage of the new census data was widely available on the day of the data drop, led by an article by Robert Gebeloff, Dana Goldstein and Winnie Hu for The New York Times that featured the country’s overall slow population growth and population decline in the country’s three largest cities – Los Angeles, New York and Chicago – in addition to other superstar cities like San Francisco.

The article describes the patterns evident in the census data as complex enough to defy simple explanation:

The pandemic played a role, as the death toll rose dramatically and many Americans left cities for smaller places. But experts say skyrocketing housing costs were also to blame and some of the changes are a continuation of fundamental shifts in US demographics that began before the pandemic, such as the steady decline in the birth rate and the sharp drop in immigration.

Here’s how the New York Times article summarizes the geography of pandemic population trends:

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco lost more than 700,000 people in total from July 2020 to July 2021, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Austin and Atlanta gained more than 300,000 residents in total. And there has also been substantial growth in some rural areas and small towns like Boise, Idaho and Myrtle Beach, SC.

Further, The New York Times presents the data as a reversal of the trend of urban growth that has defined much of the past decade since the Great Recession:

The pattern is a notable contrast to a decade ago when big cities were expanding, buoyed by a decades-long immigration boom and the growing popularity of city living. At that time, most of the counties that were losing population were rural or experiencing economic decline.

Richard Florida took to Twitter to provide insight into the data and data coverage by The New York Times, and noted that while the biggest cities are losing the most people, the next tier of big cities are gaining inhabitants.

“For me, the big advantage of this [sic] story about population is that growth is heavily concentrated in a cluster of fairly large metropolises like 6-7 million people like Dallas, Houston and Atlanta as well as Phoenix and Austin” writes Florida on Twitter. “That shouldn’t be so surprising, and it suggests that ‘urbanization’ is still at work. It’s not tiny little places sucking up all the growth. It’s the 2nd largest places outside of NY , LA and Chicago.”

Another article by Mike Schneider for the Associated Press ended up on various local daily news sites. For the Chicago Tribune, Schneider’s article is headlined by Chicago’s population loss. For the Houston Chronicle, Schneider’s article is headlined by Houston’s population growth.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also provides insight into new census data specific to that state’s growth. “North Carolina grew by 112,000 people or 1.1% between April 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, faster than the national rate of 0.1%. An estimated 73 counties in North Carolina grew in the 15 months following the census, according to the article by Rebecca Tippett.

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