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New Data Reveal Most Populous Cities Experienced Some of the Largest Decreases

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has not officially ended, the U.S. Census Bureau’s first release of population estimates for cities and towns this decade reveals how population growth trends shifted during the first year of the pandemic.

Some of the fastest-growing cities before the pandemic grew at a much slower rate after it started, changing the rankings among the top 15 gainers. While many rankings of cities and towns remained roughly the same, there were notable differences in the magnitudes of change.

Overall, growth slowed in the nation’s biggest cities and some states experienced an uptick in population due to migration to the South and West in the first year after the pandemic hit.

The new estimates show that some fast-growing cities in 2019 grew at a slower rate in 2021. At the same time, others grew at a faster pace during the pandemic.

Overall, growth slowed in the nation’s biggest cities and some states experienced an uptick in population due to migration to the South and West in the first year after the pandemic hit.

How City Growth Rates Changed

As of July 1, 2021, six of the top 15 fastest-growing cities (or towns) with populations of 50,000 or more were also among the top fastest growing in the pre-pandemic July 1, 2019, estimates. While the list was mostly similar, growth slowed for some.

Leander, Texas, top-ranked in 2019 with a 12.0% increase from 2018, slipped to second place with a 10.1% growth from 2020 to 2021. In Idaho, Meridian’s growth fell from 7.2% in 2019 to 5.2% in 2021, slipping from sixth to 13th in the rankings (Tables 1 and 2).

Different Cities Experiencing Decline

San Francisco was not among the 15 fastest-declining cities in 2019 but topped the list in 2021 with a 6.3% drop in population from the previous year.

Six of the cities on the declining list in 2021 were in California. And major cities, including Boston and Washington, D.C., also made the list.

Even though only one city — Cupertino, California — was one of the 15 fastest-declining in both 2019 and 2021, the magnitude of the drop (in its population growth rate) nearly tripled (Tables 3 and 4).

Overall, the pre-pandemic population losses from 2018 to 2019 (Table 4) were much lower than after the pandemic hit (Table 3).

For instance, Petaluma, California, had the largest percentage population decline from July 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019, a drop of 2.1%. But that drop would not even have ranked among the top 15 in 2020-2021, after the start of the pandemic.

These rates of population decline of 5% or more in a single year were nearly unprecedented.

Population decline can result from a variety of causes, including natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires.

For example, Hurricane Laura, a destructive Category 4 hurricane in August 2020, may have contributed to the population losses of Lake Charles, Louisiana, the second-fastest declining city with a decrease of 5.0% from 2020 to 2021.

Population Gains

One year into the pandemic, Phoenix, Arizona — the city with the largest numeric increase from 2018 to 2019 — moved into second place, switching places with San Antonio. Its population gain of 13,626 was roughly half what it had added in 2019.

In addition, San Antonio and Fort Worth, Texas, and Meridian, Idaho, while still among the 15 cities with the largest numeric increases, all showed notably smaller increases.

Collectively, the total population increase for the nation’s 15 largest-gaining cities was a little over 187,100 people before the pandemic hit, compared to about 129,000 a year into it (Tables 5 and 6).

Population Losses

While New York City remained the city with the largest numeric decrease, its population decline in 2021 (305,465) was nearly six times its numeric decrease in 2019 (53,624).

Chicago, Illinois, had a similar experience. Still ranked third with a numeric decrease of 45,175 in 2021, its population dropped by only 7,447 (six times less) in 2019.

All told, the cities with the largest numeric drop in population had a combined loss of nearly 609,800 a year into the pandemic, compared to about 102,700 between 2018 and 2019 (Table 7 and Table 8).



Small Town Population Trends

The 2021 population estimates released today also provide a regional perspective on growth in cities and towns of all sizes.

On average, small towns with populations of less than 5,000 experienced uneven growth across U.S. regions:

  • In the Northeast, the populations of small towns decreased on average by 0.2%.
  • In the Midwest, small towns experienced no change on average.
  • In the South, small towns grew on average by 0.4%.
  • In the West, small towns saw the largest growth, with an average increase of 1.1%.

How We Calculate Estimates

Unlike the decennial census, which aims to count every person living in the United States, the annual population and housing unit estimates for states, counties, cities and towns are developed using various administrative data sources, such as birth and death certificates and tax return statistics on people who changed residences.

The decennial census serves as a starting point for each decade of subcounty population estimates.

Cities and towns are more likely than larger geographies to annex land or disincorporate. We apply these types of legal boundary changes to the decennial census to create an updated base for population and housing units.

Such geographic updates are made annually, so that each new time series of estimates we produce begins from a newly updated geographic base. This “estimates base” created from the census is essential to accurately distributing the population.

More details on city and town populations are available in the subcounty methodology statement

 

Amel Toukabri is chief of the Local Government Estimates and Migration Processing Branch in the Census Bureau’s Population Division.

Crystal Delbé is a survey statistician in the Population Division.

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