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Young families continued to leave cities last year – but at a slower pace

During the pandemic, the number of young children in urban U.S. counties saw significant declines. Joyce Lilly, center, holds her granddaughter Paige alongside her husband, Anil, at their new home in July 2020 in Washingtonville, N.Y.
John Minchillo
During the pandemic, the number of young children in urban U.S. counties saw significant declines. Joyce Lilly, center, holds her granddaughter Paige alongside her husband, Anil, at their new home in July 2020 in Washingtonville, N.Y.

When the pandemic was in full force, one of the big news storylines was that families were fleeing cities for the countryside or the suburbs. New data suggests what the next chapter of the story might be, even if the saga's ending is still unclear.

A new analysis of recently released census data by the Economic Innovation Group, a research and advocacy group, provides some numbers to back up the anecdotes.

From July 2020 to July 2021, the population of children under 5 in large urban counties dropped by 3.7% — a difference of more than 235,000 kids. In the following year, from July 2021 to July 2022, the number of young children in large urban counties continued to decline, but at a slower rate – a drop of 1.8%.

The population of young children is declining nationally

The effect was especially sharp in the large urban counties home to metro New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, cities where the population of young children was more than 10% smaller in July 2022 than it was in April 2020.

Connor O'Brien, a research associate at EIG, authored the analysis. He says was surprised by "the stickiness" of the trends in the second year of the pandemic.

"I thought we'd see a much sharper bounce back," he tells NPR, noting that declines in the under-5 set weren't just in the biggest cities with tons of workers who went remote. It happened in smaller cities, too. "That raises the question of whether this is a potentially a permanent trend and something that cities have to reckon with" rather than a temporary pandemic change.

For this analysis, EIG defined large urban counties as those that intersect with an urban area with a population of 250,000 or higher. Small urban counties intersect an urban area with a population of 100,000-250,000.

But while large urban counties saw the steepest declines in the under-5 population from 2020 to 2022, exurban counties were the only type that saw overall net growth in the population of young children during the same time span. And there is some regional variation: There was actually net growth in the under-5 population in urban counties in the Southeast last year.

The declining number of young kids nationwide is part of a long-running trend that predates the pandemic, as birth rates have declined. "So it's all about which kinds of places have shrunk less," O'Brien says.


It's important to note that this data doesn't tell us about moves made by individual families, like 'Family A moved from Manhattan to exurban Ohio'. There will be data more like that later this year, when the Census releases information from its American Community Survey.

And these figures reflect a point-in-time measurement from a year ago – a year in which the U.S. economy and population has continued to shift in the wake of the pandemic.

Migration trends away from cities started before the pandemic

Overall population growth in cities had been slowing even before the pandemic began. As a group, urban core counties have been experiencing slower growth and decline since the mid-2010s, says William Frey, demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"In the early part of the 2010s, cities were doing unusually well because they were they were holding on to these millennials who had trouble finding financing for homes in the suburbs or finding jobs somewhere else" following the Great Recession, he says. As the economy improved in the middle part of the decade, the movement toward suburbanization among young people resumed.

"And then, of course, the pandemic just added a punch to the whole thing," Frey tells NPR.


Of course, people moving to the suburbs or beyond as they start a family is a long-running pattern.

"So it's not surprising that during the pandemic year, if there are people leaving cities, it's going to especially pinpoint people with children," says Frey. "I think the real question is, will that sort of very severe decline become less severe as the pandemic effects wear off?"

For that answer, it's still too soon to tell.

But the moves that young families made during the pandemic may be lasting ones, he says: "They tend to put some planning into them, moving often to an owned home, or at least to a home that they expect to raise their children in for a few years."

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.