Is the pandemic causing a major reshuffling of America’s population? Although we’re seeing some movement, we are at an historic low for household relocations. The bigger population story is lower immigration.
The relocation theme was recently sounded by one of our leading urbanists, Richard Florida. Linking to a report from the National Association of Realtors, Florida tweeted that the report provided “pretty substantial evidence of the ongoing and accelerated demographic divide.”
Does it? The Realtors’ report uses U.S. postal service change of address data, finding “urban areas continue to lose people,” with rural and small towns gaining. But the magnitudes aren’t huge. Urban areas had a 48.6% share of inbound moves in the first half of 2021, where a 50% share means no net change of household location from the postal service data.
The Realtors could moderate their language. They say the six-month 2021 share “fell even further…compared to a year ago.” Before you get too excited, note that the previous comparable period’s share was 48.5%, compared to 48.6% in 2021. One-tenth of one percent hardly constitutes a dramatic “fall.”
The Realtors’ report then grudgingly notes that “big cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Boston were among the areas with the most year-over-year inbound gains.” Wait? What happened to the population losses?
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Losses were somewhat higher in cities that have been declining over time. The best performing metropolitan areas (which is the Realtors’ actual unit of analysis, not specific cities) were smaller cities and rural areas, mostly in the mid-South.
We know there’s been some outmigration from urbanized counties over the past few years. And that’s part of a longer trend of slowing urban population growth starting in 2012.
But the key factor for urban population growth isn’t internal moves of existing households. In fact, in spite of excited stories in the media, Americans are moving less and less every year.
We are at an historic low for internal relocation. Brookings Institution demographer William Frey says that although the pandemic may be contributing to this, we are in a “decades-long migration decline, hitting a “historic migration low” in the most recent data.
That’s true for both short and longer-distance moves. Frey shows that migrations within one’s county of residence have been falling steadily over the past decade, from 8.6% in 2006-2007 to just 4.9% in the most recent data. (Like most demographers, Frey uses U.S. Census data, not the postal service data used by the Realtors’ report.)
Maybe more people are moving across counties? Nope. Movement from one county to another also declined steadily over the period, most recently hitting a new low of 3.3%. And most of those cross-county moves are in the same state (often the same metropolitan region), not a major cross-country relocation.
So there just aren’t that many household relocations going on. Analyzing 2020 Census data, the Pew Trusts found that moves from one residence to another “were the lowest since the federal government began reporting data in 1948.”
The most important population story for cities, and for America, isn’t relocation. It’s the decline in immigration. Households have always moved out of core cities to suburbs or other locations, with immigrants from abroad helping to keep cities thriving.
John Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor summarize a widely-held view among immigration scholars, saying that “positive regional responses to new immigrants will generate a long-term payoff in economic growth, political cooperation, and greater eventual social cohesion.” Immigrants supply new labor, start businesses, and because they are generally younger, have higher fertility rates.
But we aren’t adding immigrants as rapidly as we used to, and that’s slowing our population growth, especially in urban areas. (The other factor is less fertility linked to our increasingly older population.) The Census Bureau found that net international migration between 2020 and 2021 was only 247,000, compared to 1,049,000 in 2015-2016.
The Bureau sees a major impact here from the pandemic, but we also are in a longer-term immigration decline. Although the America’s immigrant population share is close to the all-time high during the great migration of the late 1800’s, another Pew report found that “new immigrant arrivals have fallen, mainly due to a decrease in the number of unauthorized immigrants coming to the U.S.” especially from Mexico.
So don’t get too excited about Covid-19 causing major population relocations. Cities and large metro areas are exporting some households, although remember we are at an historic low for overall relocations. But throughout American history, especially in the post-World War II period, cities have always done this—taken in immigrants while families relocate to suburbs.
It’s the lack of new immigrants that is hurting urban—and American—population growth. And the fierce politics around immigration mean we will be fighting over this even after the pandemic has (hopefully) receded. Richard Florida, like other urbanists, has often spoken about how important immigrants are to cities and to national prosperity, and that’s where our focus should be. Stronger pro-immigrant policies will help all cities and our economic future.