A huge outflow of residents from New York City accounted for nearly all of New York State’s record single-year population loss following the Covid-19 outbreak, according to annual estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

During the 12-month period ending July 1, 2021, the city’s population dropped by 305,665 people, or 3.5 percent, erasing nearly half of its 629,057 increase in population over the previous decade, as counted by the decennial census of 2020. During the same period, the Census Bureau estimated the total population of New York’s other 57 counties decreased by 13,555 people. This followed a combined gain of 194,040 people, or 1.7 percent, in the population outside New York City between 2010 and 2020.

Including the five boroughs of New York City, the Census Bureau estimated that 41 Empire State counties experienced population declines in 2020-21, while 21 counties grew, as further detailed in the map below.

Noteworthy population trends during the 12-month period included the following:

  • Among the 3,143 U.S. counties covered by the Census Bureau’s latest estimates, Manhattan (New York County) experienced the second largest total population decline — a loss of 110,958 people, exceeded only by Los Angeles, California (down 159,162). Ranking 4th and 5th on the national loss list — just behind Cook County, Illinois, which contains Chicago — were Brooklyn/Kings (down 86,341) and Queens (down 64,348). The Bronx, whose population decreased by 41,490, was the eighth biggest loser among all counties.
  • After a decade of growth, New York’s most populous upstate counties — Albany, Erie, Monroe and Onondaga — all experienced population decreases in 2020-2021. A similar reversal occurred downstate in the suburban counties of Westchester and Nassau, where populations dropped slightly following a decade in which both counties had experienced modest growth, according to the 2020 decennial census.
  • In absolute terms, Orange County had New York’s largest countywide population gain, adding a 3,203 residents, followed by Suffolk (2,245), Saratoga (1,670), Dutchess (1,370), Ulster (1,264), Sullivan (1,163) and Rockland (1,106).
  • Sullivan County, up 1.5 percent, had the highest rate of population growth, followed by Greene County, whose population grew 1.3 percent. The other 25 New York counties with growing populations added less than a percentage point to their totals.
  • Populations increased last year in several upstate rural counties that had experienced sharp population losses in the previous decade. The biggest positive population turnarounds occurred in the neighboring trio of Greene, Schoharie, Delaware counties — all of which had experienced population losses in the previous decades, exacerbated by the aftereffects of Hurricane Irene in August 2011.

New York City’s decline last year was driven mainly by a net domestic migration outflow of 342,449 people, more than triple its annual average domestic migration losses from 2010 to 2020. Slightly offsetting that decline was a small “natural increase” of 29,000 — since, even during the pandemic, births slightly outnumbered deaths. The city also gained 12,695 immigrants during this period — a tiny number, by historical standards.

However, the net domestic outflow from the rest of the state was just 9,736 people, less than one-fifth the prior decade average of 54,000 a year. The Census Bureau estimates do not track migrants by county or state of origin, but it’s safe to surmise that most of the gain in the rest of the state consisted of emigres from New York City.

During the previous decade, only two New York counties — Saratoga and Ontario — consistently gained more migrants than they lost to other counties and states. But from mid-2020 to mid-2021, the new estimates show that 30 of the 57 counties outside New York City experienced net migration inflows. On a percentage basis, the largest migration flows went into the mid-Hudson Valley and Catskills north of New York City, as mapped below.

 

As shown, Greene County — just south of Albany in the northern Catskills — led the state last year with more than 18 net in-migrants per 1,000 residents, a rate that also placed it in the top decile of all counties nationally as measured by this statistic. The nearby counties of Dutchess, Orange, Ulster and Sullivan were credited with a combined net domestic migration gain of 6,178 people during the year ending July 1, 2021; in the previous decade, they had averaged a combined net domestic migration losses of 2,869 residents annually.

Consistent with news accounts of New Yorkers flooding into the Hamptons, Suffolk County had the largest net domestic migration inflow in absolute terms, gaining 2,138 residents (1.4 per 1,000) after experiencing an average net out-flow of 8,000 per year in the previous decade.

As described above, the first annual Census estimates following the pandemic showed notable reversals or interruptions of pre-pandemic trends.

What the numbers tell us 

Will New York’s post-pandemic population trends become permanent, pointing to a new era of decline for New York City and a mix of modest growth and stagnation elsewhere? Will remote working lead to a repopulation of previously shrinking rural communities in New York?

Those remain open questions. No doubt some New York City residents flocking to suburbs and rural counties between 2020 and 2021 were already mulling such moves before the pandemic hit, then accelerated their plans when Covid-19 lockdowns began. If that was the case, Census estimates in the next two years will reflect much smaller changes.

This much is clear: the uptick in domestic migration to the Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley represented just a small portion of the massive New York City outflow (although it was large enough to drive up real estate values beyond the reach of lower-income locals). Most of the city’s out-migrants went to other states, including neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey, as reflected in those states’ population estimates. Many others must have moved further away, to metropolitan areas of the southeast and west that already were growth hot spots.

One of the national narratives supported by the new Census data focuses on the growth of smaller, less expensive metro areas at the expense of bigger cities such as New York. If this is the case, the benefits of this trend seem to be eluding the metro areas of upstate New York. While rural communities in some regions have rebounded, the more developed counties containing the cities of Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse — and, for that matter, Binghamton, Niagara Falls and Utica — did not grow at all last year.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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