BY E.J. McMAHON
The final set of pre-pandemic U.S. Census population data for cities, towns and villages provides localized details on a familiar New York pattern: widespread decline upstate, and a few small pockets of growth amid the general stagnation downstate.
Updated with estimated populations as of July 1, 2019, the figures released by the Census Bureau today (May 21) are the last official glimpse of demographic trends prior to the currently ongoing decennial census of 2020. (Unlike statewide and county estimates released in December and March, respectively, the “place” numbers do not include components of change such as migration, births and deaths.)
One important recent trend—a multi-year decrease in New York City’s population since 2016—was revealed initially in the March data. From the new local estimates, are some noteworthy New York highlights, measuring from the April 2010 decennial census to mid-2019:
- Populations declined in 49 of New York’s 61 incorporated cities, including the upstate “big four” of Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. In percentage terms, Saratoga Springs led all cities with population growth of 1,626 residents (6.1 percent). Yonkers had the largest population gain among cities in absolute terms, up 4,394 residents (2.2 percent), and is growing at a rate that in a few years should allow it to displace Rochester (down 4,870 residents, or -2.3 percent) as the state’s third largest city.
- Of a dozen New York cities with populations of at least 50,000 in 2010, populations increased only in three Westchester County cities—Mt. Vernon, Yonkers and White Plains. Buffalo had the biggest population loss (down 6,026 or -2.3 percent) of any city, while Niagara Falls declined the most in percentage terms (down 2,473, or -4.9 percent).
- Eighty-four percent of New York’s 931 towns had population declines, with losses most concentrated in upstate rural areas and increases concentrated in suburbs and exurbs of urban centers. Populations increased in half of the state’s 10 largest towns—led by Ramapo, where an influx of large ultra-orthodox Jewish families contributed to a population increase of 8.5 percent, or 10,811 residents. Town populations increased slightly in Nassau County while decreasing slightly in Suffolk County. In the Buffalo area, the Erie County towns of Amherst and Hamburg added residents, while Tonawanda and Cheektowaga declined slightly.
- Nearly three quarters of the state’s 537 villages lost population. As in previous years, the largest percentage gains were in two Orange County communities settled by ultra-orthodox families, Kiryas Joel and New Square. Among the 20 largest villages, growing populations were concentrated primarily in Rockland County villages influenced by ultra-orthodox settlements trends, and in affluent Long Island and Westchester County communities. Population losses were predominant among upstate villages, especially in Central New York.
Census numbers in context
The decennial census is the closest thing to a hard headcount of Americans, and also provides the most statistically reliable baseline estimates of age ranges, race and ethnicity, income, housing and other characteristics in every community down to a geographic “block” level.
The 2020 census also will serve as the basis for congressional and legislative reapportionment effective with 2022 elections. Trends since 2020 indicate New York’s slower-than-average growth will cost the state one or two congressional seats, and the makeup of the Legislature will see a further shift of seats from depopulating upstate regions to downstate New York.
But Census numbers are just a snapshot—and this year they will be a snapshot of an unprecedented moment of transition. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, previous population trends over the next few years could radically change.
Many of the most affluent residents of New York City, the national epicenter of COVID-19 casualties, have at least temporarily dispersed to second homes or rental properties in New York suburbs and in other states. Upstate communities with much lower viral caseloads have nonetheless seen their economies crushed by the lockdown, as reflected in unemployment filing statistics.
Looking ahead, will Gotham shrink and outlying suburbs and exurbs expand, due to a combination of pandemic recurrence fears among city residents and expanded work-at-home arrangements among previous commuters? With a severe economic downturn, will upstate communities decline even more rapidly—or will their populations be replenished by refugees from downstate and other denser, more expensive metro areas?
It will be years before we know the answers to such questions.
E.J. McMahon is a senior fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy.