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The Coastal Conundrum

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The large domestic outflow from coastal metropolises is disturbing, and suggests a vote of no-confidence in our formerly fastest-growing metro areas.

The Census Bureau has released estimates for the populations of counties and metropolitan areas. I decided to examine the 50 metro areas which had estimated populations of 1 million or more as of 2009. I also decided to cheat a little on definitions: I combined the New York and Bridgeport areas, the Los Angeles and Riverside areas, the San Francisco and San Jose areas, and the Raleigh and Durham areas—just because it made sense to me.

One fact that jumped out at me was that half of the nation’s total population growth (25,581,948) occurred in just 16 metro areas and that the top 20 metro areas in population gain accounted for 56% of total national population gain. Indeed, 29% of population gain was recorded in just five metro areas—Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix—each of which gained more than 1 million people from 2000 to 2009. Here’s a chart ranking the top 20 metro areas by population gain:

Barone 5.14.10A

The sources of population gain, however, are quite different among the metro areas. The following table shows the net domestic migration and the international migration for each metro area, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Barone 5.14.10B

What I have called coastal metropolises—Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago (on the coast of Lake Michigan), and Miami—grew despite massive domestic outflow, thanks to large immigrant inflow. These metro areas are increasingly two-tiered societies, with a high-income, mostly native American segment and a low-income, immigrant segment. The recession has led fewer natives to move out and fewer immigrants to move in, but overall one has to wonder whether growth in these areas is sustainable. Note that San Francisco, now the fifth-largest metro area according to my rankings, doesn’t appear on this list because of low overall population growth; like New York and Chicago, it had higher domestic outflow than immigrant inflow.

Several interior boom towns had substantial domestic and immigration inflow. The latter was slightly larger than the former in Dallas and Houston. Atlanta, Phoenix, and Orlando had immigrant inflow that was about half as large as domestic inflow. In the following metro areas, domestic inflow far overshadowed immigrant inflow: Las Vegas, Austin, Charlotte, Raleigh, San Antonio, Tampa, Sacramento and Portland. Interestingly, Austin and San Antonio, although they are relatively close to the Mexican border, drew many more newcomers from the United States than from Mexico and other foreign countries.

Despite net domestic outflow from our largest metro areas, most of the nation’s population growth is still occurring there, thanks to immigration inflow.

Some of these metro areas have suffered high unemployment and foreclosure levels in the recession, with Las Vegas the prime example. But the 4 million-plus metro areas in Texas have shown considerable robustness even during the recession. Urban scholar Joel Kotkin argues that “the most dynamic future for America urbanism—and I believe there is one—lies in Texas's growing urban centers. To reshape a city in a sustainable way, you need to have a growing population, a solid and expanding job base, and a relatively efficient city administration.” These are more important, he thinks, than a reputation as a “cool city” attracting well-credentialed young singles; each of these metro areas (except perhaps Las Vegas and Tampa) has attracted many such folk, but they are outnumbered by people moving in seeking a family lifestyle. Most of these metro areas seem poised to resume balanced growth as the economy recovers.

Two Western metro areas, Denver and Seattle, had modest domestic inflow and larger—in Seattle’s case, much larger—immigrant inflow. The question here is whether small domestic inflow will turn to domestic outflow, as it has in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, despite their amenities and high quality of life.

Bottom line: Despite net domestic outflow from our largest metro areas, most of the nation’s population growth is still occurring there, thanks to immigration inflow. But the large domestic outflow from what I call coastal metropolises is disturbing, and suggests a vote of no-confidence in what were previously our fastest-growing metro areas. In contrast, metro areas in Texas and states like Georgia and North Carolina have attracted substantial numbers of both Americans and immigrants and have enjoyed balanced growth, with room for high-education singles in “cool cities’” neighborhoods but even more space for families who will produce the workers and consumers of the future. That’s the kind of growth we should hope for in the decade ahead.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone specializes in analyzing regions and population trends. He has recently explained “What 1946 Can Tell Us About 2010,” detailed “How the Recession Has Changed American Migration,” and discussed the correlations between “Delayed Childbearing and Voting Behavior.” Barone also reported “In Britain, a Cautionary Tale for U.S. Parties,” considered “Immigration Reform: The New Third Rail,” and showed how “Low-Tax Texas Beats Big-Government California.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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