Without influxes of Hispanics and Asians, some U.S. cities would be smaller

April 5, 2011

More than half of the United States’ 100 largest cities relied on Hispanics and Asians to grow and would have seen their populations decline without them over the past decade, a Washington Post analysis shows.

According to recent census data, Hispanics accounted for the population growth of Philadelphia, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Omaha and Atlanta. Asians boosted the count in Anaheim, Calif.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Baton Rouge; and Jersey City. Without influx from the two groups, all of those cities would have shrunk.

Non-Hispanic whites and blacks made a difference in only a handful of big cities that grew. The District was one of the few cities among the top 100 to experience a population increase as a result of growth among whites.

The demographic changes sweeping the nation are transforming many cities, making them even more multiethnic, even as many blacks and whites are spurning cities for the suburbs. Six of the 10 largest cities are majority minority.

Much of the growth can be attributed to recent immigrants, part of a pattern that has determined city size throughout much of American history. Many came in search of job opportunities, making population growth a marker of a city’s economy and vitality.

Most of the 100 biggest cities grew between 2000 and 2010. The top gainers were in the West and South, including San Antonio, Fort Worth and El Paso in Texas, and Raleigh and Charlotte in North Carolina.

The 21 cities that lost people included Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Milwaukee. Detroit had the biggest drop, shedding 25 percent of its population. Other industrial cities that had declines included St. Louis and Baltimore, which fell 5 percent.

In many cases, what determined whether a city grew or contracted was the number of Hispanics and, to a lesser degree, Asians it attracted. Among the 100 biggest cities, 26 would have had population losses without an influx of Hispanics, and 11 would have shrunk without Asians.

Cities that do not attract more new immigrant communities over the next decade will hemorrhage population, demographers predicted.

“The real energy in cities is going to be from Hispanics coming in,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “Cities in the industrial Midwest could use an infusion of new immigrant minorities coming in. Cleveland and Detroit haven’t done well; they’re not attracting enough Hispanics. Clearly, Hispanics were the magic bullet for a lot of cities.”

Washington as an outlier

Partly because of the recession, the 2010 population numbers were a disappointment in some big cities.

Officials in Atlanta had predicted a population of 480,000 to more than 500,000. Instead, only 420,000 people were counted in the census, an uptick of barely 1,600 people. New York City grew by 167,000, just 2 percent and less than a quarter of its total growth in the previous decade. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that New Yorkers were undercounted and that he will contest the census count.

The District grew by almost 30,000 but had anticipated a spike of about 3,400, Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said. But because the difference is less than 1 percent of the city’s 601,700 residents, the count will not be appealed, she said.

The District, the country’s 25th largest city, is something of an outlier — most of its growth was due to the influx of 50,000 white residents. The city also gained 6,000 Asians and 10,000 Hispanics. The number of blacks plunged by 39,000, although that was less of a decrease than in the previous decade.

In most cities, demographic trends echo paradigms from earlier waves of immigrants, particularly those of a century ago when southeastern Europeans carved out enclaves in Northeastern U.S. cities. Today, seven of the 10 largest cities are in the West, and the numbers of Hispanics skyrocketed during the decade in all except Chicago. Non-Hispanic whites declined in every city in the top 10, as did blacks in all but Phoenix and San Antonio.

“The growth of the nation’s largest cities is always a story of immigration, whether you’re talking about Los Angeles or North Carolina,” said Chris Hoene, director of research for the National League of Cities, noting that immigrants often gravitate toward cities and, after a while, move to the suburbs.

More than four in five Americans live in metropolitan areas, and suburbs are growing more quickly than cities.

This is the first decade in which Hispanic growth in the South has been sizable, and the region is slowly coming to grips with the political and cultural implications of demographic change.

Atlanta gained whites, Asians and Hispanics. But it no longer appears to be the destination of choice for African American professionals who move to the South and settle directly in the city’s suburbs. Since 2000, Atlanta’s black population has declined by 32,000, many of whom moved to the suburbs.

‘Too busy to hate’

More than one in 10 residents in the Atlanta metropolitan region are foreign-born. Voter registration has not caught up with the change, said Harvey Newman, an urban policy expert at Georgia State University, but when it does, it will change the politics of the city and surrounding counties.

“The city has continued to pat itself on the back as having good relations between blacks and whites,” said Newman, who served on a committee formed by U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to focus on the region’s growing multiculturalism. “We were the city that was too busy to hate. But in recent years, we’ve moved from black-white to a multicultural population. I think neither race, whites nor blacks, has realized the impact of that change.”

In one sign of the growing impact that Hispanics are having on American cities, the National Urban League, which has created an annual equality index for black Americans, instituted an index for Hispanics last year.

“It will be interesting to see how it challenges politics,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, said of the rising numbers of Latinos and Asians and the diminishing counts of black and whites. “It shows the necessity of building coalitions.”

Some demographers say the trends in the 2010 Census would have been more acute had the recession not kept in place people who could not find jobs or sell their houses.

“The urban cores did better than they would have,” said Kenneth M. Johnson, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who studied Chicago demographics when he was at Loyola University. “This recession has had more impact than any demographic occurrence I’ve ever seen, except for the inflow of Hispanics.”

Chicago’s Hispanic population grew by 25,000 over the past decade, an eighth of what it gainedin the previous decade. That suggests more Hispanics are abandoning Chicago for the suburbs, Johnson said. Chicago and Detroit were the only cities among the largest 20 that got smaller over the decade.

When the economy improves, Johnson said, more people will probably move to the suburbs, both city dwellers and new immigrants who settle there directly. There’s little that cities can do to retain young people once they marry and have children.

“A lot of them are staying put now, because they can’t sell those condos they bought,” Johnson said. “Now they’re shifting from one life cycle to another, having families. I’m not sure what cities can do to hold on to them. They’re going to go to the suburbs.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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