Striking Patterns of Population Change in U.S. Metropolitan Areas, 2020-2022

The 2020 to 2022 COVID period saw major population changes in the metropolitan areas of the United States, with some experiencing rapid gains and others rapid losses. Wildwood-The Villages, Florida, for example, saw a staggering 11.75 percent population increase, whereas Lake Charles, Louisiana witnessed a sobering decline of 6.01 percent. Mapping these changes reveals some interesting patterns.

The first map, showing population change in major metropolitan areas (defined here as those with more than 1.5 million people in 2002) exhibits clear regional differences. A stark north/south divide is evident in the region east of the Mississippi River. Here, every major metro area in the South saw population gains, some significant. So too did three out four in the lower Midwest (Columbus, OH, Cincinnati, OH, and Indianapolis, IN), although by smaller margins. By contrast, every major metropolitan area in the Northeast and upper Midwest lost population. In the western two-thirds of the country, population declines were restricted to the Pacific Coastal region. Here every major metropolitan area except Seattle saw a decline. Texas, in contrast, is notable for its rapid metropolitan expansion, with Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio all registering major gains in this period.

Somewhat different patterns are seen on the map of secondary metropolitan areas, defined here as those with populations between 700,000 and 1.5 million in 2022. As can be seen, fewer of these smaller metro areas lost population, indicating a shift from larger to smaller cities. Intriguingly, most of those that did decline are in or near the Mississippi River and the eastern Great Lakes, the main transportation corridor of the central part of the U.S. before the coming of railroads. New Orleans (official, the New Orleans–Metairie metropolitan statistical area) saw a drop of over 3.5 percent. I was surprised to see that New Orleans is no longer populous enough to qualify for the higher categories on this map, as its population has apparently dropped below one million. A major statistical discrepancy, however, complicates this analysis. According to the Wikipedia table that I used to make this map, New Orleans–Metairie had a population of only 972,913 in 2022, having declined from 1,007,275 in 2020. The Wikipedia article on the New Orleans–Metairie metro area, however, gives it a population of 1,271,845 in 2020. But no matter how one looks at it, New Orleans has hemorrhaged population, with the city itself dropping from 627,525 residents in 1960 to 383,997 in 2020.

The secondary metro areas that saw population growth in this period also exhibit some interesting patterns. Those in the Atlantic Northeast all saw minor population gains, presumably due to people fleeing the region’s larger and more expensive major metro areas. Much more rapid expansion, however, was experienced in the secondary metro areas of the southeast, particularly in Florida and the Carolinas. Secondary metro areas in the interior West also saw substantial growth.

Even more distinct patterns are visible on the map showing the fastest growing and fastest shrinking metro areas of all sizes during this period. (Many official metropolitan areas, it is important to note, are not large; Eagle Pass, TX, for example, has fewer than 60,000 inhabitants.) As can easily be seen, most of the fastest growing metro areas are in the southeastern coastal region, stretching from the Gulf Coast of Alabama through the Atlantic Coast of the Carolinas. Florida really stands out on this map. Several smaller metro areas in the non-coastal West also saw extremely rapid growth. St. George UT, for example, went from 180,279 to 197,680 inhabitants, a gain of almost 10 percent. After having witnessed the boomtown atmosphere of Bozeman MT, which does not even qualify for this map with a growth rate of just under 5%, I have a difficult time understanding how the infrastructure of Saint George could keep up with such rapid population expansion.

In contrast, three states stand out for the rapid population decline of many of their metropolitan areas: California, Louisiana, and West Virginia (metro area #16 on this map is Weirton–Steubenville, located in both West Virginia and Ohio). Although metropolitan growth from 2020 to 2022 was concentrated in Republican-voting states, Louisiana and West Virginia form clear exceptions.

The final map shows population loss-and-gain patterns in California’s metropolitan areas during the same 2020-2022 period. Here again the pattern is clear: all coastal metro areas,  which have equable climates but are very expensive, lost population, whereas most less-expensive metro areas in the Central Valley, a region noted for its scorching summers, gained population, as did the similarly toasty San Bernardino-Riverside metro area in Southern California, the so-called Inland Empire. The college town of Chico in Butte County in the northern Central Valley (or Sacramento Valley) however, saw a significant population drop.

Tomorrow’s post will examine the geography of population change in this period in rural counties.