The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In pandemic’s first year, large cities shrank as South, West saw gains

The skyline of San Antonio's downtown business district in 2007. The city was one of a few large cities nationwide to grow in population from 2020 to 2021. (Mel Evans/AP)
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Many large U.S. cities lost population during the first year of the pandemic, some at nearly unprecedented rates, according to data released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

The nation’s 15 largest cities remained the same as in the previous year, but more than half lost residents. The cities and towns over 50,000 people that showed the most growth from July 2020 to July 2021 were clustered in the South and West, including all of the top 15 fastest growers. Cities with the highest raw population increases were mostly in Texas, Arizona and Florida, with San Antonio, Phoenix and Fort Worth topping the list.

But even large cities that grew did so more slowly than in previous years, the bureau found, as the pandemic pushed many schools and jobs online and led city dwellers to seek more space and cheaper housing. Immigration is down and covid-19 has killed more than 1 million people in the United States, but most of cities’ losses were because of domestic migration, said William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

“Telecommuting and people being scared to be in close proximity to other people,” he explained. Population trends “may have shifted since then, but this is probably the peak period of those pandemic moves.”

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Between 2020 and 2021, the U.S. population overall grew by just 0.1 percent, a slower rate than in any year since the nation’s founding, according to Census Bureau estimates.

It is unclear how much of the movement from cities will be permanent. The bureau’s population estimates use administrative data to calculate the figures each year.

Washington and Alexandria, Va., were among the 15 cities that lost population at the highest rates, losing 2.9 and 2.8 percent respectively. The 2020-2021 period marks the first time the District has lost population in a decade and a half, with about 23,000 more people moving out of the city than moving into it.

New York City and Chicago showed particularly steep declines; both cities lost six times the number of residents they had lost two years earlier. New York also saw the highest raw population drop from 2020 to 2021, losing 305,465 people, or 3.5 percent of its population.

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The highest percentage drop was in San Francisco, which lost 54,813 people, or 6.3 percent of its population. Lake Charles, La., saw a 5 percent drop after the city experienced a destructive Category 4 hurricane in August 2020. Such a rate of population decline in one year is nearly unprecedented, the bureau said.

All but one of the 15 fastest-growing cities by percentage were in Texas, Arizona, Florida or Idaho, with population increases between 5 and 10.5 percent. All were relatively small cities with populations under 220,000 people.

The Texas cities of Georgetown (pop. 75,420) and Leander (pop. 67,124), along with Arizona’s Queen Creek (pop. 66,346), led that list.

“What struck me was how many little, small places are among the top 15,” Frey said, noting that such cities had relatively large raw population gains, too, considering their size. “It says these places have been able to capture a lot of the movers from the cities.”