Was there really a mass exodus of Americans from big cities during the covid pandemic? For many of the nation’s largest cities, the answer is yes: the pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on their populations.
Cities were mostly growing since 2000, although that growth waxed and waned with economic conditions. But when covid hit, many cities saw historic population losses, an analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution found.
San Francisco’s population fell 6.3%, New York City lost 3.5%, San Jose, Calif. lost 2.7%, and Chicago lost 1.65%.
Who bailed? In San Francisco, they were mostly young adults, particularly white people in their late 20s, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
They were also rich. The folks who fled New York represented some $21 billion in residents’ income, according to the New York Times, and about one-third of the people who left moved from Manhattan and had an average annual income of $214,300.
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Where did these folks go? Many New Yorkers headed upstate, according to Cornell University. Some San Franciscans went to cheaper states like Georgia, Florida, and Texas. Three suburban counties just north of San Francisco — Marin, Sonoma and Napa — saw a net increase of more than $7 billion in resident income. The Chronicle describes one couple who sold their San Francisco condo for $1.7 million and began building a 4,300-square-foot mansion on almost 2 acres in Monument, Colo.
They also may have gone to other cities: some cities did show positive growth during 2020-21, Brookings found. Several were cities that were growing rapidly before the pandemic, such as Charlotte, NC, and Fort Worth, Texas.
Examining data going back two decades, Brookings analysts found that there was no individual year that came close to showing the population declines that most cities experienced in 2020-21.
Of the 88 US cities with populations exceeding 250,000, 77 showed either slower growth, greater declines, or a shift from growth to decline.
Based on the data from Brookings, here are the cities that lost and gained the most people during the pandemic.
Cities With the Biggest Pandemic Population Loss
1. New York City
2020-21 population loss: -305,465
New York was growing in 2010, but the growth steadily slowed, and 2016 began a steady net loss of population. The greatest loss before the pandemic was about 90,000 people in 2019-2020. The following year more than tripled the figure.
In boom times for cities (such as 2000-01 and right after the Great Recession), New York ranked first in overall population gains, whereas during the down years, it ranked among those with greatest population losses.
2. San Francisco
2020-21 population loss: -54,813
San Francisco, with a population around 850,000, had the biggest percentage loss at 6.3%.
2020-21 population loss: -45,175
4. Los Angeles
2020-21 population loss: -40,537
5. San Jose, Calif.
2020-21 population loss: -27,419
2020-21 population loss: -24,754
7. Washington, DC
2020-21 population loss: -20,043
2020-21 population loss: -19,496
2020-21 population loss: -14,777
2020-21 population loss: -11,777
11. Portland, Ore.
2020-21 population loss: -11,226
12. Nashville-Davidson metro, Tennessee
2020-21 population loss: -10,397
13. Long Beach, Calif.
2020-21 population loss: -8,697
14. Jersey City, NJ
2020-21 population loss: -8,000
15. St. Louis
2020-21 population loss: -7,218
2020-21 population loss: -6,971
2020-21 population loss: -6,634
18. New Orleans
2020-21 population loss: -6,311
2020-21 population loss: -6,167
2020-21 population loss: -5,712
21. Oakland, Calif.
2020-21 population loss: -5,518
2020-21 population loss: -5,343
2020-21 population loss: -4,290
2020-21 population loss: -4,253
2020-21 population loss: -4,041
10 Cities That Gained the Most People in the Pandemic
1. San Antonio, Texas
2020-21 population gain: +13,626
2020-21 population gain: +13,224
3. Fort Worth, Texas
2020-21 population gain: +12,916
4. North Las Vegas, Nev.
2020-21 population gain: +9,917
5. Oklahoma City
2020-21 population gain: +4,965
6. Reno, Nev.
2020-21 population gain: +4,735
7. Bakersfield, Calif.
2020-21 population gain: +4,214
8. Jacksonville, Fla.
2020-21 population gain: +4,151
9. Gilbert, Ariz.
2020-21 population gain: +3,930
10. Colorado Springs, Colo.
2020-21 population gain: +3,743
Read more about this analysis at Brookings.edu.