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Americans are moving west — but also toward cities

The Census Bureau has recalculated the population center of your state

The downtown of Hartville, Mo. The Census Bureau on Tuesday announced that it's the closest town to the middle of the nation. (Summer Ballentine/AP)

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau conducts a national tally of the population of the United States. Then, a few months later, it releases a particularly interesting little bit of trivia: where the center of the country’s population can be found.

Think about it like this. Back in 1780, there were no states west of the Mississippi, so everyone lived close to the East Coast, by definition. The state with the largest population was Virginia, but the largest city was New York (as it always has been). So the midpoint of the country’s entire population in 1790 was calculated as sitting just northeast of Virginia — on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

As the country expanded to the west, so did the country’s population center. Even after every state was filled in between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the population center kept shifting west and south as Americans moved to the Sun Belt. And so it was that on Tuesday the Census Bureau revealed a new average population center in southern Missouri.

The Bureau made a nice little map showing the progression of the population center since the country’s founding.

It turns out, though, that the bureau also releases population-center data for each state, something I didn’t realize. For each census since 1880 (or since the state joined the union), the bureau has done the same calculation. And it reveals a very different pattern of movement.

Here’s what those shifts look like in the continental United States. The circles indicate where the population centers are now; the lines show the path it took.

In some states, there hasn’t been much movement. In others, there’s been a lot. But there’s a pattern that emerges. If we simplify the movement from the first population center to the most recent, that pattern may become more obvious.

Do you see it? The movement over time has been toward cities.

In Illinois, the population center keeps shifting toward Chicago. In California, it’s moving toward Los Angeles. In Nevada, toward Las Vegas. In New York, toward New York City. In Washington, toward Seattle. In Florida, toward Miami.

This is largely about the imbalance in population between urban and rural areas. America is increasingly urban as rural areas tend to see population declines. So, decade by decade, population centers shift toward cities in states where there’s one particularly large urban center.

The graphs above miss some of the nuance of the movement. Below is an interactive version via Google Maps that allows you to zoom in on particular states (and to see the current center wherever you live). But before you do that, zoom in on Florida.

(There’s a data anomaly in Mississippi’s data that isn’t corrected in the Google Map.)

Above, I pointed out that the state’s population center had shifted toward Miami over time. But in the past two censuses, it shifted back north, heading back toward Orlando.

The fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States over the past decade was just outside Orlando: The Villages, a retirement community in Sumter County. This was one of the other key findings of the census. The U.S. population is getting older not just literally but on net, and places like the Villages are expanding in population as a result. That aging also contributes to the speed at which the population center is moving to the west.

Overall, the centerpoint of the American population is some rural point in the middle of Missouri. But the story within states is different, however obvious it might be: people have been moving toward density.