These 2 charts show how rumors of pandemic mass migration are probably overhyped

These 2 charts show how rumors of pandemic mass migration are probably overhyped
Despite news stories of mass migration during the pandemic, census data show rather typical trendlines.Jordan Siemens/Getty Images
  • Recently released Census estimates show the pandemic didn't really change population growth.
  • Most metro areas that saw population growth from 2018 to 2019 also grew between 2019 and 2020.
  • Insider looked at four major metro areas to see just how much their populations changed in 2020.

Despite stories about a mass exodus out of large cities like San Francisco and New York amid the pandemic, estimates from the Census Bureau show that population changes in those cities from 2019 to 2020 weren't that different from previous years.

New 2020 metro area estimates released by the Census Bureau in May show that population changes for four large metro areas - San Francisco, New York, Miami, and Austin - weren't drastically different from previous years. These 2020 population estimates, which are different from the census taken every 10 years, show the total resident populations as of July 1, 2020. (That is, this data only covers the first few months of the pandemic, but not the months after.)

The data includes people moving between places within the US, moving between the the US and other countries, and the difference between births and deaths for a county or metro area.

"We've seen large metropolitan areas actually show population growth slowdowns really sort of earlier in the decade," William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Insider. "So this last year is not the only year there has been a growth decline."

To take a closer look at how 2020 compared to previous trends at the metro area level, Insider looked at four large metro areas that have been at the center of the story of moving amid the pandemic and where we can see existing trends continue in the new data. These metro areas are San Francisco, Miami, New York, and Austin.


The four metro areas continued to see similar population changes in 2020 as they did in previous years

The above chart shows each year's percent population growth or decline since 2010.

Based on the chart, there aren't dramatic changes from one year to the next of changes in these metro area's populations, for the most part. This was true even from July 2019 to July 2020, during part of the pandemic.

Austin has long been one of the fastest-growing metro areas, and the pandemic was no different. A LinkedIn analysis based on zip code changes from LinkedIn members, as reported by CNBC, found Austin gained the most residents between April 2020 and October 2020, while New York City and San Francisco were among the top places that lost residents.

The Austin metro area population has grown by 33.7% from April 2010 to July 2020, with steady annual population increases across the decade.

The San Francisco metro area saw steady annual population increases early in the decade, but has experienced population declines in the last couple years. Additionally, USPS data from March to November analyzed by the San Francisco Chronicle showed San Francisco residents were not moving very far amid the pandemic; residents were mainly moving to nearby Bay Area counties.


Similar reporting from Bloomberg showed although some people left New York City early on in the pandemic, some New York City residents also didn't move very far. The New York metro area saw slowing growth in the first half of the decade, and started to have declines in 2017. Overall, the metro area has only grown by 1.2% from April 2010.

One of the largest problems for New York's population is the decline in immigration. Joseph Salvo, who recently retired from being New York City's chief demographer, told The New York Times that immigration in the city started to decline "substantially" in 2016.

"We are talking about a 46 percent decline in the number of immigrants coming to the city. Half of the births are to immigrant women. So births are down, too," Salvo told The New York Times. "All of this has caused the population to decline."

The Miami metro area usually saw at least 1% population growth; however, the growth rate has been smaller in recent years.

Migration is one of the biggest contributors to a metro area's population

The following chart highlights the net domestic migration, or the number of people moving into a metro area from elsewhere in the US minus people moving out to another part of the country, per 1,000 residents for the four metro areas since 2010.


Each figure in the above chart is adjusted by a metro area's population as of the previous year. Net domestic migration for each year is between July 1 of one year to June 30 of the next year.

The line chart shows that although the values from year to year may vary, the overall trends are pretty much the same. For instance, Austin continued to see positive net domestic migration since 2010, meaning more people were moving into the metro area from within the US than those moving out of the metro area to other places in the country.

The New York metro area has been experiencing negative net domestic migration at least since 2010. This decline has only increased over time when adjusting by population. Frey's calculations also show New York and Los Angeles had "their largest domestic out-migration of the decade during the pandemic year."

Miami has mainly had more people moving out of the metro area to other parts of the country than those moving in from elsewhere in the US for most of the decade. On the other hand, Miami has had positive net international migration year after year, contributing to its positive population growth annually.

After San Francisco's population stopped increasing, net domestic migration was negative and could partly explain the drop in its population growth for this metro area.


So despite stories about people moving to and from these four large metro areas during the pandemic, the latest data from the Census Bureau shows these metro areas are still growing or shrinking at similar rates as previous years.