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After stalling during the recession, Americans are again moving from Snowbelt to Sunbelt, U.S. Census reports

Nearly a decade after the recession, population migration in the U.S. is reverting back to traditional patterns, with the Northeast and Midwest losing people and the South and West gaining people, according to estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Immigration from abroad has continued to shore up the U.S. population, even as the country saw the lowest rate of growth last year than at any time since the 1930s. Last year the U.S. also registered the highest number of deaths in its history.

The ten counties with the largest gains between July 2015 and July 2016 were largely in the Sunbelt, in Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Washington, California and Florida.

Maricopa County, Az. had the largest numeric growth, displacing Harris County, Tx., home to Houston,which had spent the previous eight years in the top slot. Maricopa, which includes Phoenix, was growing steadily before 2007 because of international migration, according to Peter Borsella, a demographer in the Census Bureau’s population division.

Both domestic and international migration declined there after the recession, but in the past five years a large influx of people moved there from elsewhere in the U.S., while international migration remained relatively low. Harris County, which includes Houston, saw a substantial dip in domestic migration last year, though a high rate of international migration kept it in second place.

The counties and metropolitan areas with biggest population losses were mostly in Midwestern and Rust Belt states. Notably, the Chicago area saw a decrease for the second year in a row, its only two years of losses since 1990.

This reflects the country’s direction before the recession, said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“There was huge growth into the Sunbelt – Florida, Texas, Phoenix, Las Vegas – and it had to do with the huge economic engines that were creating jobs in those areas, coupled with a very favorable housing market (and) low interest rates,” he said. “Those were boom times in that part of the country.”

The recession reduced the flow, while shoring up areas that had been losing population. “In a way these people were sort of captive migrants in some of those places; they would have moved if they could have,” Frey said. “So the Snowbelt to Sunbelt highway was on hold a little bit. In the past three years there’s really evidence that some of these are coming back. So in a way it’s kind of back to normal of the broad sweep of where the country’s been going since the 1980s and 90s.”

Metropolitan areas with a high cost of living have seen more out-migration as the nation’s economy has improved post-recession. Along with Chicago, greater New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC showed the biggest losses due to domestic out-migration, though these three areas still grew through international migration and natural increase (the number of births compared to deaths).

The Washington metro area ranked 10th overall in population gains, with an increase of 53,508 people, but the gains have been lower each year since 2009-2010, which saw a high of 118,760, Frey said.

The flight from rural areas has also begun to slow down, though their population is still declining overall. Traditionally, rural counties near metropolitan areas grew faster than more remote ones because the sprawl from metropolitan areas spilled over into them, said Kenneth M. Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. While the recession reversed this trend, rural counties near metropolitan areas began to grow again last year, he said.

At the same time, growth in urban core counties of one million or more has slowed in the last two years because of mounting domestic out-migration, he said, while the suburban areas surrounding them saw growth, reflecting pre-recession patterns.

In many urban areas, immigration has played a key role in maintaining growth. Between 2010 and 2016, among the 89 largest metropolitan areas that saw increases, immigration accounted for all the growth in 13 of them (including the Washington area), over half the growth in 23 of them, and more than a quarter of the growth in 44 of them, Frey said, noting that immigration also reduced the losses in large metro areas that saw population decreases.

In the greater Washington area, growth peaked between 2009 and 2010 and has steadily declined since, reflecting post-recession gains followed by losses as migration returned to its previous trendlines.

“In many ways metro DC is a bridge between the Northeast and the South and managed to do well in attracting migrants when other parts of the Sun Belt were hard-hit in the immediate post-recession period,” Frey said. Now, however, that growth has leveled off as people have migrated to other areas of the country.

Counties such as Montgomery, Fairfax, Prince George’s have seen a flattening in growth over the past decade due to domestic out-migration. The District reflects some of this pattern, but it has fared better. Its growth rate declined from a high of 2.5 percent in 2010-2011 to 1.6 percent last year, higher than most surrounding suburban areas, Frey said, noting that unlike the surrounding metro areas and large inner suburbs, the city still registers domestic in-migration.

The city of Baltimore showed a large dip in population due to domestic out-migration, after remaining fairly steady since the beginning of the decade. This, too, reflected pre-recession trends.

Immigration has kept the U.S. population from declining even more precipitously. Last year the country had the highest number of deaths in its history, while the birth rate, which plummeted during the recession, has not bounced back to previous levels, Johnson said; as a result, the U.S. last year experienced the lowest level of natural increase since 1973.

“This suggests either that the recession’s impact on fertility has yet to wane, or that American women are going to have fewer children,” he said. “There were 7.9% fewer births last year than in 2007, despite the fact that there are now more women of child-bearing age.”

The waning of natural increase is most pronounced in rural counties, nearly half of which had more deaths last year than births, compared to 25 percent of urban counties. In two entire states, Maine and West Virginia, more people died than were born.

“Besides these two states it’s never happened in the United States,” Johnson said, adding that as the non-Hispanic white population ages and the number of non-Hispanic white women of childbearing age decreases, the whitest states will continue to see the steepest population losses. Maine, which has seen natural decrease for the past four years, has the nation’s highest percentage of non-Hispanic white people at 94.4 percent; Vermont is second and West Virginia, which has seen natural decrease for the past eight years, is third.