The two Americas and the great Sunbelt shift

New York's Houston Street thrives because of immigration; native-born Americans are more likely to move to the Texas city of the same name. (Image from Jewish Women's Archive/jwa.org)

The Census Bureau has confirmed that there are two Americas. I don’t mean red vs. blue America, or conservative vs. liberal, or North vs. South. I mean the America that we, the people, are moving to and the America we’re moving from.

The data released a couple of weeks ago include not only population changes for every county and metro area in the United States, but their causes. The estimates tell us that 65,850 more American citizens moved into metropolitan Houston than out of it, helping to make it one of the fastest-growing areas in America from July 2013 to 2014. At the same time, metro New York had a net loss of 162,903 American citizens—but it still registered an overall population increase, thanks to births and to a gain of 146,982 from international immigration. Metro Pittsburgh had a net loss of 2,806 American citizens, but because it attracted a small number of immigrants and was one of the few places where deaths outnumbered births, that smaller exodus was enough to make it the biggest metro area with an overall population loss.

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Census estimates from the beginning of the decade show Americans moving from places like Flint, Michigan; New Haven, Connecticut; and Chicago—and ending up in Austin, Texas; and the Florida metro areas of Fort Myers and Sarasota. “Seeking the Sunshine” was the headline on a Census graphic (see below) showing that almost all of the 20 fastest growing metro areas are in the South. (Boise, Idaho, was the northernmost metro area to make the list.) It’s tempting to declare a popular movement, a declaration of new American values with the right to air-conditioning at the top of the list, but few people get to live in their favorite city. People follow jobs, and they go where housing is plentiful and affordable. Undoubtedly, many people flee New York because it’s cold and cramped, but its status as a landing destination for immigrants, combined with a lack of land for new housing, make it a quick-churn city that will lose people to other American cities in good times and bad.

Still, the population changes have political implications. Voters in fast-growing metro areas—some in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, and North Carolina—may demand transportation improvements and worry about the effects of overbuilding on the environment (everyone wants their new house to be the last one built in the neighborhood). Those in declining or stagnant metro areas may be more concerned about what the federal government is going to do to create jobs; they’re in the swing states of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

How voters feel about immigration (and, in particular, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants) may depend on whether they live in a place like Orlando, Florida, where both immigrants and American migrants are contributing to rapid (too rapid?) population growth or somewhere like Boston, whose slightly-faster-than-average growth would be impossible without high levels of immigration.

Some other observations about metropolitan areas from the new Census data:

•The fastest growing metro area last year, and for the decade so far, is The Villages, in Florida. The retirement mecca grew by 22.4 percent from 2010 to 2014, up to 114,350 (or about 1/176th the size of metro New York). This growth is especially remarkable because The Villages sees far more deaths than births (5,575 vs. 1,939 since the start of the decade). Sarasota and Daytona Beach in Florida, and Prescott, Arizona, also have more deaths than births, but they can prosper by attracting people who are long past the age of worrying about their children’s schools.

•There were more deaths than births in 41 out of 381 metro areas from 2010 through 2014, and few of them can compensate with waves of retirees the way The Villages can. As noted above, the biggest “natural decline” was in Pittsburgh, where 100,888 births were outmatched by 114,531 deaths. In the ironically named Youngstown, Ohio, deaths exceeded births by 5,510, and the metro area also lost a net 7,347 to domestic migration while attracting few immigrants.

•The highest ratio of births to deaths was in Provo, Utah (51,501 to 8,991). The only other metro areas where births exceeded deaths by at least four to one were Jacksonville, N.C.; Logan, Utah; Laredo, Texas; Hinesville, Georgia; and McAllen, Texas. In all of these metro areas, more native-born Americans moved out than in, perhaps because houses are not multiplying as fast as people. Los Angeles was the largest metro area with at least twice as many births as deaths.

•After small gains in the previous year, Cleveland, Hartford (Connecticut), and Syracuse (New York) moved to the population loss column in 2014. This could indicate continued economic decline, but population loss can also indicate the beginning of gentrification, which brings smaller household sizes. Meanwhile, Allentown, Pennsylvania; Tallahassee, Florida; and South Bend, Indiana, moved to the population gain column.

•The net gain from immigration was bigger than the overall population gain from 2010 to 2014 in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Hartford, Providence (Rhode Island) and Buffalo (New York), among other metro areas. Could we say that those areas would be in decline if not for immigration? Not necessarily; it’s possible that fewer native-born citizens would have moved out if the lower demand for housing had led to lower rents and home prices.

In Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, San Jose (California), and Minneapolis, immigration more than outweighed losses to domestic migration, but those metro areas would have gained population regardless because of the “natural” gain of births outnumbering deaths.

•Bend, Oregon, was the only metro area to lose people to international migration from 2010 to 2014 (a net decrease of 49 people). Metro areas that gained fewer than 100 people from immigration include Carson City, Nevada; Danville, Illinois; and Pine Bluff and Hot Springs, both in Arkansas.

•The biggest gap between the change from immigration and domestic migration is in New York. From 2010 to 2014, that metro area lost a net 420,173 from Americans moving elsewhere and gained a net 497,834 from immigrants moving in. In Los Angeles, there was a net loss of 208,635 from domestic migration and a net gain of 264,440 from immigration; in Chicago, the comparable net loss was 237,666 and the net gain was 108,320.

At the other end of the scale, Austin gained a net 126,296 from domestic migration and only 25,762 from immigration. In Dallas, the comparable numbers were 184,021 and 98,398; in Denver, they were 103,785 and 24,596. Almost all metro areas in the Northeast and Midwest gained more from immigrants than from domestic migration (if they grew at all); the biggest metro area to break that rule was Madison, Wisconsin, which gained 6,901 from migration and 6,706 from immigration.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 1 month ago
Poor immigrants move wherever they can, but favor places where their countrymen have already established communities. Hard workers move to where there are more jobs and less taxes - Retirees follow the sun (and lower taxes).

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