Based on the newly released 2020 Census data, New York’s population grew by 823,147 residents – 4.25% – between 2010 and 2020. The State’s performance was similar to others in its region and not far from the median growth rate for all states – 5.9%. But, more than three-quarters of the population growth took place in New York City, and outside the New York Consolidated Statistical Area, the state actually lost population – 1,586 residents.
Upstate’s population growth has lagged the nation’s since the middle of the 20th Century. Over the past decades, state-level leaders have implemented a series of “remedies” for the malaise. The initiatives have included tax cuts on businesses and spending on economic development projects, including billions of dollars to attract technology businesses. Despite these actions, upstate has fewer residents than it did ten years ago. Why has upstate’s population growth been so much weaker than the New York City area?
The National Context
Between 2010 and 2020, the population in the United States grew by 7.4%. The rate of growth was the slowest since 1950. This decade’s slow growth reflects the preference of Americans for fewer children than in the past. Since the early 1960’s the availability of oral contraceptives has made family planning easier. The fertility rate in the U. S. and in much of the world has declined steadily, reaching 1,637 per thousand women in 2020 – a number that is in itself insufficient to maintain the population at current levels. In the past two decades, a little more than 1,000,000 immigrants have been admitted annually, offsetting the deficit of births.
Population growth between 2010 and 2020 was concentrated in six states. Texas, Florida, California, Georgia, Washington, and North Carolina – contributed over half the total population growth in the United States between 2010 and 2020. New York’s population growth ranked seventh. Three states, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Illinois, lost population.
The nation’s population’s growth rate was quite uneven, with a few states growing significantly faster than others. While the nation’s population grew by 7.4%, in half the states, the population grew by 5.9% or less – only slightly faster than New York’s 4.3% growth.
Because a number of the fast-growing states had large populations, such as Texas, Colorado, Washington, Florida, and Georgia, the national growth rate was greater than the growth rate in 30 states. The fastest growth occurred in the Mountain States, Texas, and the Southeast coast. The slowest growing states were West Virginia, Mississippi, Illinois, Connecticut, Ohio, and Michigan.
Regional performance was relatively weak, averaging 3.8%, about half the national growth rate. New York’s population grew by 4.25 percent – slightly higher than the regional average. Massachusetts grew fastest of the states near New York State, with a 7.4% growth over the past decade. Connecticut barely grew – by 0.9%.
Population Growth in the New York City Metropolitan Area was Greater than in the State as a Whole
Although New York’s population grew by more than 4%, there was no net growth outside the New York City Consolidated Statistical Area. Within the metro area, more than three-quarters of the growth took place in New York City. New York City’s growth rate – 7.7% – was nearly double the growth rate in the part of the metropolitan area outside the City, despite the City’s relatively high cost of living.
The population of upstate New York was stagnant, showing a small decline, from 6,339,276 to 6,337,690. Upstate metropolitan areas grew by 56,265 – 1.2%, but that growth was offset by a decrease in population of 57,581 – -3.6% outside those urban areas.
The Nation’s Population Increasingly Lived in Metropolitan Areas
The Census Bureau reported that in 2020, eighty-six percent of U. S. residents lived in metropolitan areas. With the continued shrinkage of agricultural employment over the past century, rural populations moved to metropolitan areas to find jobs. At the same time, remaining residents of rural counties increasingly commuted to central cities to work, resulting in the incorporation of formerly rural adjacent counties into metropolitan areas. In the most recent decade, “Less than half of the nation’s 3,143 counties or equivalents gained population from 2010 to 2020, while the populations of around four-fifths of metro areas grew during the time period.” The chart below shows that rural areas across the nation lost population in the past decade.
Population Change in New York’s Counties
The Census Bureau found that large counties grew between 2010 and 2020 while the smallest – those under 50,000 – lost population. New York’s population change followed national patterns. In New York, the 15 largest counties grew by 5.6%, while the 15 smallest lost 5.1%. The twenty-three counties that gained residents were much larger than those that lost population, averaging 739,744 people, The 39 counties that lost people averaged 81,722 residents.
Counties that gained population were primarily in New York City, led by Kings (9.2%), Rockland (8.5%), Queens (7.8%), Orange (7.6%), and Saratoga 7.2%). Eight of the ten fastest-growing counties in the state were in the New York metropolitan area. Rural counties had the largest losses. Schoharie County lost 9.3% of its residents; Franklin lost 7.8%, Delaware – 7.7%, Madison – 7.4%, and Herkimer 6.8%.
Population Change in Metropolitan Areas
Larger, more populated metropolitan areas in New York grew population between 2010 and 2020, while most smaller upstate metros lost residents. The state’s largest metropolitan area – the New York City Consolidated Statistical Area – had 20,140,470 residents in 2020, an increase of 6.6% compared with 2010. In upstate New York, Buffalo-Niagara Falls (2.76%), Rochester (0.97%), Albany-Schenectady-Troy (3.28%), Ithaca (4.11%), and Watertown-Fort Drum (0.42%) had larger populations than in 2010. Syracuse, Utica-Rome, Binghamton, Glens Falls, and Elmira lost population.
During the past decade, New York’s population growth – 4.2% – was similar to other states in its region. But viewed regionally, all of its growth took place in the New York Consolidated Statistical Area. More than three-fourths of the growth statewide was in New York City, pointing to its continuing vitality as a population center. The city’s population grew by 629,057 residents – 7.7% – between 2010 and 2020. Growth in the remainder of the New York metropolitan area was 4% – 195,676 residents.
Upstate New York’s population continued to stagnate. While upstate metropolitan area populations increased by 56,275 – 1.2%, areas outside upstate metros saw population decreases, losing 57,581 residents – by 3.1%. Upstate’s fate reflects that of much of the nation outside major metropolitan areas. As metropolitanization continues, rural areas offer their residents few job opportunities. Smaller Upstate metropolitan areas, like Syracuse and Utica-Rome, lack deep talent pools. Compared to the New York and Boston metropolitan areas, a smaller percentage of residents have college degrees, making them less able to provide workers with specialized talents in demand in growing industries.
The disparate population change in the New York Metropolitan Area and Upstate poses differing challenges. As the New York Metropolitan area population increases, government investment in maintaining and modernizing infrastructure and public services will be required to meet its growing needs.
Only three metropolitan areas upstate had population increases of more than one percent – Albany-Schenectady-Troy, Buffalo, and Ithaca. Five metropolitan areas – Syracuse, Utica-Rome, Binghamton, Glens Falls, and Elmira, lost population. Upstate has less locally generated wealth to support its population’s needs for government services and to maintain an infrastructure that was in many cases designed for a larger population.
Government strategies to generate growth can have only a limited impact. Cutting taxes has not been an effective strategy to incentivize economic activity at the local level. Although New York’s taxes are high, many lower-tax states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Ohio, West Virginia, Wyoming, and Missouri, had significantly slower growth rates or lost population.
New York’s spending on economic development is very high – both in forgone revenues associated with tax abatements and in direct spending. The cost to taxpayers has been high where the state’s economic development strategy has succeeded – such as Albany-Schenectady-Troy’s manufacturing growth. But, other projects, like the Buffalo Billion investment in Solar City (later Tesla), have fallen far short of the number of new jobs initially promised.
The state’s Regional Economic Development Council Initiative has spent nearly $7 billion on projects. Still, its economic impact is unknown because many of them are not direct job creation initiatives and because the state’s reporting focuses on project completion rather than actual job impacts.
Although politicians claim that simple solutions – cutting taxes or investing public dollars in economic development – will transform regional economies and lead to population growth, in reality, states have relatively little leverage over population change, which is largely the result of regional and national trends. Upstate New York, like much of the Midwest, some Southern States, and the Great Plains, outside of major population centers, continues to have aging populations and significant outmigration to growing parts of the country. State government can do little to alter that.