Our Shrinking Cities

The New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metro areas are all losing people.

“This work” by Aleksandar Pasaric is in the Public Domain, CC0

New data from the Census Bureau shows that our three largest metropolitan areas are getting smaller.

The New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metro areas are all losing people, according to 2018 population estimates just released by the Census Bureau. But other coastal regions—the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, along with the traditional Sunbelt boomtowns—continue to grow.

Ninety-four metro areas, representing about a quarter of the nation’s total, lost population last year on a region-wide basis. This includes nine major metros of more than 1 million people. Among them were the three biggest: New York (down 19,474 people, or 0.10 percent), Los Angeles (down 7,223, or 0.05 percent), and Chicago (down 22,068, or 0.23 percent).

The population of the country as a whole keeps expanding, so the growth is obviously happening somewhere else:

The usual suspects kept expanding, however. Among larger metros, Austin topped the list again, growing by 53,086 (2.51 percent). Orlando, Las Vegas, Raleigh, Phoenix, and Dallas-Fort Worth all posted strong gains. Other high-end coastal regions grew. Though bedeviled by a homelessness problem that threatens to cloud its future, Seattle was up 54,894 people (1.41 percent). Washington grew by 49,949 (0.81 percent), and Miami by 49,095 (0.80 percent).

Among smaller metros, Boise, Idaho continues its streak as a red-hot market. It was the eighth-fastest-growing metro in the country last year and has added 113,860 people (up 18.47 percent) since the 2010 Census. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was the 11th-fasting-growing metro; Idaho Falls, the 20th. This strong growth, which includes a significant influx of coastal residents, will likely shift that state’s politics in the future. One resident said recently that Idaho is becoming “the new Colorado.”

— Aaron M. Renn, City Journal, “Glitter, Without Growth

The author offers no explanation for why these trends are happening but points to the implications:

America is experiencing economic and demographic divergence, with some cities booming while a significant share of the nation’s metro areas shrink. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, 42 metro areas in the country lost population. Based on the midyear population estimates, 85 metro areas have shrunk since 2010. Not just cities, but entire regions are getting smaller. While population growth is not the sole, or perhaps even the best, measure of urban health, population loss can cause serious problems. It can, for example, lead to sprawl without growth, which depresses housing prices and causes home abandonment. And it causes fiscal stress for local governments because so many of their costs are fixed or semi-fixed, such as bond payments and the need to maintain infrastructure.

Some of this may just be statistical noise. I don’t know what’s going on in Boise, for example, but it’s easy to have massive fluctuations when the baseline number is so small.

Dave Schuler, who pointed me to the piece, offers this insight:

What I find most distressing about all of that is that growth seems to be synonymous with subsidy. If it’s subsidized, it grows. If it’s not, it decline. What sectors are growing month after month? Government, education, and health care. They are also the most highly subsidized sectors. That’s not a formula for success.

Here’s something that might not have occurred to you. Due to the structure of Social Security it subsidizes Sun Belt states at the expense of Northern states. Wage incomes are taxed to finance the system and, historically at least, most wage incomes have been paid in the North. Taxing those incomes results in less spending in the North than would otherwise have occurred. When people move south as they age and collect their Social Security retirement incomes in their new homes, it results in more spending and, consequently, more economic growth in those places than otherwise would have taken place. That may resolve itself in time but that does nothing for Northern cities now.

This is indeed interesting—particularly as people live much longer and thus spend decades in retirement.

The subsidy issue is indeed interesting. I’ve lived the last 17 years in the DC metro area, which is booming and doing so mostly on the basis of government spending and the growth in the rent-seeking industry.

But, surely, government transfers aren’t the only reason for these shifts?

We’ve discussed in the recent past differences the extent that tax policy might influence out-migration. While there’s no uniform pattern in this regard, one presumes that people who can live anywhere may well prefer to live in places that tax them less. I can’t imagine they’re moving from New York or Los Angeles to Boise-–but Miami seems plausible.

Similarly, one presumes that people who can live anywhere would prefer to live in warmer places rather than cooler ones.

Additionally, whatever the impact on individuals, favorable taxation and regulatory regimes may well attract businesses. There has been a movement away from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt for decades. It may simply be that there’s enough of a critical mass to continue drawing people to these places for work.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’d be interested in data on how many people leaving LA move to Vegas. . . and still live in LA. I know it’s a thing, don’t know how extensive. It’s a bit less than a four hour drive, you buy a condo in Vegas (cheap by LA standards), spend six months plus one day there and you pay no CA state income tax. Of course that doesn’t explain the Bay Area where the Vegas equivalent would be Tahoe/Reno.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    For the curious, here is a link to A census study released on the 18th: New Census Bureau Estimates Show Counties in South and West Lead Nation in Population Growth

    I can not say with certainty that it is the one that James, Aaron, and Dave are referring to, but it seems to be the most likely culprit. 😉

  3. gVOR08 says:

    The numbers seem fairly small. I wonder how much of this is just baby boomers retiring and moving away from snow, as I have done myself. And yes, the economy around me depends on SS. Dave makes this sound like a bad thing. I used to have a rule, don’t eat where old people eat, the sense of taste is the second thing to go. No longer possible.

  4. Tony says:

    I’m one of those people who relocated from the DC area (Fairfax) to Boise almost four years ago. It is indeed growing at a rapid pace because you can get 90% of the economic, cultural, and entertainment experiences here as you can in a bigger city and even better access to the outdoors for significantly less money. When I got here it was probably closer to 70%. It’s a great city and while all the growth is causing some hardship for locals hopefully this will eventually shake out with better distributed income and jobs nationally (although still mainly in urban areas) and hopefully more sane politics here. Boise itself is already very blue, but most of the rest of the state is very red.

  5. Teve says:

    @gVOR08: here in North Florida the hottest place for old people to eat is old times country buffet, whose logo is, appropriately, a pair of morbidly obese hillbilly ma and pa pigs, and where literally everything on the buffet tastes like fried salt.

  6. EddieInCA says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    That’s definitely a thing. Additionally, alot of LA film and TV people have corporations set up in Nevada, and not California. So not only is their LA time not taxed, but much of it becomes tax deductible.

    I’m one of the morons with a California corp.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    I join you in moronhood. Reynolds Applegate Inc., a California Corporation.

  8. Andy says:

    I think cost-of-living plays a lot into it. My area in Colorado is expensive by national standards, but it’s downright cheap compared to LA or NY. After my wife’s retirement, we had the option to live anywhere (I work remotely now) and for us, cost of living was the biggest factor. While I love many parts of CA and NY, it simply wasn’t an option to live there.

    I also have relatives in the LA area and all but one have moved out of state because it’s so expensive to live. Another relative lives in NYC (the Bronx), is single with a good six-figure salary, which works for her as she can live in a smaller apartment. For fun, I looked up what it would cost to house my family of 5 in NYC and there’s simply no way to maintain our middle-class standard of living unless our household income magically doubled.

    I think this is one reason why a lot of these big, wealthy metro areas have such terrible inequality. Middle-class people with middle-class incomes can’t afford to live there and they often have options to relocate. You can’t live a middle-class lifestyle in a lot of these places without an income in the top quintile.

  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’d be interested in data on how many people leaving LA move to Vegas. . . and still live in LA.

    In California the only counties that are losing population are LA, Marin and counties in the North. There are several counties surrounding New York that are gaining population. To me, these large metropolitan areas like Chicago and Los Angeles are better places to visit than to live, specially if you are married with children. You are better off living close to LA and New York so that you can go to these cities often, but not necessarily living there.

    Specially because with Amazon you can have access to many of the comforts of large cities while living in a suburb.

    Having extremely rural counties and large metropolitan areas losing population is not unusual if you consider that the US population is getting older, there are more adults with children.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy: @Andre Kenji de Sousa:
    We are renting in Marin County, (Kentfield/Ross) a 3/3.5 end unit townhouse, builder standard. There’s a courtyard, no view, lots of road noise. We bought a house in Silver Lake (LA) that is smaller but has a pool and views to both sunrise and sunset, the Hollywood sign, Griffith, the ‘lake.’ I despise the rental and absolutely love the new house, can’t wait to finalize the move in June. But out of curiosity I went on Zillow and discovered that the rental townhouse with the road noise is valued at a million dollars more than the house in LA. No view, no pool, no style and a million dollars more.

    LA prices are crazy, but Marin has moved into the asylum full time. If you work in Marin you’re either commuting from the East Bay or you’re six guys sharing a two bedroom house in the Canal District of San Rafael. I don’t know how this is supposed to sustain itself. It seems impossible.

  11. Tyrell says:

    Property taxes, traffic, weather, parking, noise: these are probably some reasons, but could be more. We live in a “sub – rural” small town that closes down at 6:00 p.m. Parking is a non issue. We are close to shopping areas, restaurants, interstates, and an airport. Good land is a few thousand an acre. We have everything we need here: peaceful, convenient, cheap. Most people know each other. If it starts getting crowded, we will move out further.

  12. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Large Metropolitan Areas requires some level of density, specially in the more central areas, and it requires investing in infrastructure and transportation to the suburbs(Meaning, you’d have to toll some roads).

    All these things are toxic in California, and Marin and LA are what happens when you try to defy gravity.

  13. Slugger says:

    Isn’t simple economic activity the most important factor in the growth of an area? Chicago is no longer the “hog butcher to the world” and the steelmills are shut. New York is not the home of a million garment workers. Much of today’s economic activity does not need to be located near a transportation hub that can handle ore boats and railroads. Air conditioning makes the Sunbelt livable. The much scorned education system means that high tech firms in Boise, Las Vegas, etc can find qualified workers. The way we dole out political power makes it inevitable that we wind up with donut cities where the central city is too expensive, too highly taxed, or too decayed with a fairly vigorous suburban ring.

  14. Gustopher says:

    I think the top three cities are just full. Ok, Chicago has its own problems, but New York and LA are just expensive. Seattle and San Francisco are also expensive, but have a lot of very high paying tech jobs.

    But, the biggest cities are all basically fine.

    This map from census.gov, shows a massive outflow from upstate New York, western Pennsylvania and Ohio. And Puerto Rico. It’s in raw numbers rather than percentages, which is not great, but it shows the Rust Belt continuing to shed people. That’s not fine.

    Other than Puerto Rico, that’s a lot of electoral votes and some very white areas. And the people leaving are the people with the means to leave.

    Putting my cynical hat on for a moment, one party has every incentive to want to fix this, and the other party has every incentive to let it continue — scared and angry white folks vote Republican these days, and turning Pennsylvania and holding Ohio would be a big win for the Republicans.

    Just another moment where the structure of the government leads to perverse incentives and outcomes.

  15. Steve V says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I was just at the silver lake dog park with my dogs this morning. My kids went to Camelot kids (but not Ivanhoe because we live in Los Feliz).

    Anyway. There’s an awful lot of development going on in LA now. You would think it’s going rapidly.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My guess would be that the people who think like that (and yes, I happen to be looking at Drew right now) are smaller in number than one might imagine. I did one to two-hour commutes while I was living in Seattle back in the old days and it was fatiguing. Four-hour commutes would get old really fast, I would think.

    Of course, it could be that I’m making the mistake of thinking in terms of people who actually have jobs that they need to be in LA for.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: They must have a nationwide purveyor for their supplies. We have Old Country Buffets in Washington State, too, and all of their food tastes like fried salt also.

    I don’t eat at Old Country (or Izzy’s, where the buffet is not quite as bad) anywhere near as often as I used to before I sought treatment for my eating disorder. I’m down to about once every other year–just to remind myself about why I don’t do it anymore.

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Don’t worry. The Market [tm] will handle the problem. The market can do anything as long as *thet durn gubmint* doesn’t interfere.

  19. grumpy realist says:

    I suspect that any drift away from Chicago is due to incipient retirees fed up with the winters and the traffic.

    The major benefit of large urban centres is access to all sorts of top-notch medical establishments. However, if a smaller urban location can provide similar access, there’s nothing really keeping people in the large urban locations–especially if one’s kids have grown up and moved away. About the only irreplaceable benefit to a large urban location is watching good opera. And even that can pall after a while.

  20. Kari Q says:

    I think you’re missing the obvious, James.

    If people are moving out of metro Los Angeles (and the estimated population loss is small enough that I’m not sure they are), they aren’t moving to either Boise or Miami. They’re moving to Santa Clarita (204,299 in 2010, 210,888 in 2017) and Palmdale (152,000 in 2010, 157,519 in 2017) – outlying suburbs with lower housing costs but close enough to commute. The population of both those cities has exploded over the past 20 years; Santa Clarita grew by more than 60,000 since 2000, and Palmdale more than 40,000. Palmdale more than doubled in size between 1990 and 2010.

    I don’t know New York well enough to know what the equivalent of those cities is, but I’ll bet they are growing at approximately the same rate that New York is shrinking.

  21. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Reno is the Winnipeg of Nevada and Tahoe is basically Thunder Bay.

  22. de stijl says:

    Over-priced locales equals migration to secondary cities and out-lying areas. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and in many ways is a good thing,

    Not that high-profile cities being the purview of the rich and beholden to them is good. It’s definitely not. There needs to be counter push.

    But a controlled diaspora of creative jobs to the Boise’s and Missoula’s and Duluth’s of the world is not a bad thing.

    Frankly, Missoula kicks ass.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    @Kari Q: You make some very good points…there seems to be a lot of people who just want to trash big cities…but I doubt many people who live in New York or LA want to move to Mississippi or Montana…

  24. MarkedMan says:

    The raw numbers just aren’t that useful without knowing who is moving out and who is moving in. Our population is aging and the elderly tend to move south. They require more government services and are not big spenders. They also tend not to care about the long term health of the places they move to and uniformly vote against the school budgets or anything else they perceive as increasing their expenses. After all, their grandkids are back up North. And, as Eddie mentioned above, many are keeping the house or an apartment in the North but switching residency to the South for the lower tax rate.