The numbers don’t lie — and the story they tell from the US Census Bureau is that American demographics are changing. The process of change is slow but consistent, and paints the picture of an America where young people are abandoning rural communities for the big city; and a population that is becoming steadily older and less white.
According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans living in cities increased from 85.3% to 85.4%. That may not sound like much of a change — until you realize that urban areas gained population as a percentage of the populace, even as the overall population increased only slightly, and the number of people living in rural areas declined. That means all the gains in urban populations came out of a rural demographic that was already spread pretty thin, and in numbers high enough to actually raise the percentage of the population living in town.
The biggest increases were in metro areas with populations of a million or more people. While three of the top five fastest growing cities were in Texas, in terms of percentage growth New York City by itself grew faster than the top two major Texas metropolitan areas combined; Los Angeles was in the middle of the pack. Today one in seven Americans live outside New York, Chicago or LA; add in Washington, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, and Boston, and that ratio rises to one in three. America isn’t just moving to the city, it’s moving to the big city.
The two primary drivers of the shift to urban population centers are jobs and transportation convenience. As our economy continues to transition away from manufacturing and toward an information economy, big cities are where the “brainshare” jobs are found. Gas prices and transportation convenience in larger metropolitan areas have put the brakes on suburban flight, as young people find living in town, closer to work, offers greater convenience and more transportation options. The McMansion trend of the early 2000s was the last hurrah for the suburbs.
Another reason the population of rural areas will continue to erode is America is getting older very quickly. An aging rural population bumps up against the hard reality that while rural populations make up 20% of the population, only 9% of physicians practice in rural communities. Approaching a time in life when access to medical care becomes more important makes living in the country increasingly inconvenient.
America is also becoming less white, a demographic trend that’s been in place for some time, but is quickly becoming the new reality for young people. White youth under 18 will find themselves to be a minority as soon as 2023. That means white kids under 9 are growing up in a world where they’re an ethnic minority in the US. This shift may be less apparent because of the unequal distribution of the population shift. Many rural areas maintain a majority white population, while areas in the southwest, like New Mexico, non-whites can account for 74% of the population.
Where the major demographic trends intersect is the changing nature of our political landscape. According to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, on average Republican-held districts are 74% white, while the average district represented by a Democrat is 51% white. Those demographic shifts are most apparent in larger population centers; a virtual guarantee that the political tension between small town and big city America will remain cemented in widely different perspectives.