Largest US Counties Lost Record Number of Residents in 2021

The nation’s largest urban counties lost more than 860,000 residents in 2021, the first time these areas experienced population declines during the past 50 years, according to a report by the Economic Innovation Group.

Nearly 70% of large urban counties, which are defined as those with populations of more than 250,000, lost residents last year, “an exceptionally high share by historical standards,” the report said.

Even counties in booming metropolitan areas like Travis County, Texas, which is home to Austin, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where Charlotte resides, were not immune to this trend. Last year, both counties posted their first negative migration numbers in the past decade, even though they had overall population growth during the ten-year span. Meanwhile, Seattle’s King County saw its population shrink for the first time since the 1970s.

On the other hand, the majority of the fastest growing counties in 2021 were suburban or exurban, with 81% of exurban counties (those with populations of 50,000 or less) gaining residents, the group reported. California’s Inland Empire, the Mountain West and East Texas had the most population gains.

Not a New Trend

Large urban counties have been losing population during the past decade, but 2021 marked a historic decline for the 78 largest, the report said. The pandemic created some temporary migration, such as young people moving back home with their parents. But people who bought houses in the suburbs and exurbs during the past two years because of remote work options most likely won’t move back to cities, the report said.

Remote work is “starting to feel lasting and represent powerful forces for pushing economic activity out of urban hubs, especially the highest-cost ones.” the report said. The future of metropolitans, the group predicted, depends on expanding the pipeline of skilled immigrants and addressing the availability and affordability of housing.

Besides remote work, the availability of affordable housing and recreation activities and less sprawl are driving population shifts, the group reported.

The report said that one year of data is insufficient to draw sweeping conclusions. Nonetheless, the share of Americans living in suburban and exurban counties has increased steadily, from 22% in 1970 to 27% in 2021, while the share in urban counties has been largely unchanged during that period, noting that this trend corresponds with the slowdown in immigration.

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