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Big cities see gains, slower losses in return to prepandemic norms

FILE - This Jan. 14, 2011, file photo shows highway IH-30 traffic with the Dallas skyline in the background. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
FILE - This Jan. 14, 2011, file photo shows highway IH-30 traffic with the Dallas skyline in the background. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
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Population trends are starting to revert to prepandemic norms.

Folks fled big cities as the COVID-19 virus spread in 2020 and 2021. Schools closed, and large chunks of the population started working from home.

The Census Bureau says home-based workers more than tripled from 2019 to 2021, reaching about 27.6 million workers, or nearly 18% of the workforce.

Fewer people were tethered to big cities because of work.

Now, the Census Bureau says people are moving back to some of the most-populated counties. And the smaller counties, which saw higher levels of domestic migration during the height of the pandemic, are losing more than they’re gaining.

“It hasn't gone back to where it was three years ago, but it's moved in the right direction, and it's moved in enough places to have fewer losses or more gains to make me think that this idea that ... the pandemic made people stand on their head, and that's the way we're going to be for a while, is not true,” demographer William H. Frey of the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution said.

The Census Bureau noted that many counties with large universities saw their populations fully rebound as students returned.

The county that’s home to Washington State University, for example, saw its population grow by 10.1% last year.

That was the most of any county above 20,000 in population. And that’s a place that lost 9.6% of its population between 2020 and 2021.

These Census estimates compare population changes through last July to the shifts that took place during the height of the pandemic.

Births balance against deaths to affect the population, as do Americans moving from one place to another.

And immigrants are a key component of population growth and change.

Miami-Dade County, Florida, saw the biggest net international migration in 2022, adding nearly 40,000 people via that route.

And 80% of the migration gains in the New York county that includes Manhattan came from an international inflow.

The U.S. has around 333 million people, up about a half of a percent compared to April 2020 – the baseline for the Census Bureau’s new report.

The U.S. gained 1.26 million people from July 2021 to July 2022. Just over a million of those people came from immigration.

Frey said immigration shot up last year, but it was really a return to a normal level after a period of historic lows.

He said growth will largely depend on immigration in light of an aging domestic population and lower fertility rates.

The 10 fastest-growing counties were all in the South or West.

The Census Bureau says that’s in line with long-standing regional population shifts.

The South and West had 51 of the largest counties in 1990. Today, those regions have 63.

Half of the 10 fastest-growing counties between 2021 and 2022 were in Texas: Kaufman County (8.9%), Rockwall County (5.7%), Parker County (5.6%), Comal County (5.6%) and Chambers County (5.3%).

The others were in Florida (Sumter County, 7.5%), Georgia (Dawson and Lumpkin counties, both with 5.8%), and North Carolina (Brunswick County, 5.7%).

Maricopa County, Arizona, saw a modest, though positive rate increase: 1.3%. But the home of Phoenix saw the largest raw increase in population, adding 56,831 residents through more domestic migration than anything else.

Some big population centers still lost people.

The counties with Los Angeles and Chicago had the highest negative net domestic migration last year – losses of 142,953 and 94,344 people, respectively.

But their population losses slowed.

Losses also slowed in San Francisco County (9,421 people left in 2022 compared to 57,611 the year before), and King County, Washington, home of Seattle (16,035 left last year compared to 37,655 people the prior year).

New York County (Manhattan) actually had a slight domestic migration increase of 2,908, after losing nearly 100,000 people to domestic migration the year before.

And Dallas County, Texas, gained nearly 13,000 people after losing over 22,000 the previous year.

Those were the fastest gains Dallas County had seen since 2017.

The 10 counties with the largest population declines lost about half as many people as they had the year before.

Nearly 70% of the largest counties, those with at least 100,000 people, saw population increases.

And the smallest counties, those with populations under 10,000, were much more likely to see population losses (around 60%) than gains (around 40%).

The Census Bureau says the patterns of domestic migration in 2022 were “notably different” than they were in 2021, when small counties saw more growth.

Frey noted that some Rust Belt cities, such as St. Louis and Pittsburgh, were not gaining people before the pandemic. And they may still not see gains now that population shifts seem to be normalizing.

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“I think we'll go back to a normal suburbanization pattern, not this dramatic shift that we saw, and that maybe normal movement to sort of smaller size places, but not an evacuation of these big cities,” Frey said.

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