Growth, diversity, segregation, and aging in America’s largest metropolitan areas: A 2020 census portrait

Busy New York City street scene of diversity of pedestrian people crossing the street in Midtown Manhattan on 34th Street Herald Square.
Editor's note:

This report is part of a series by the author on the results of the 2020 census.

The nation’s major metropolitan areas—those with populations exceeding 1 million, which are home to nearly six in 10 Americans—have been a focal point of the nation’s economic vibrancy, politics, and racial and ethnic diversity. A deep look at 2020 census results in a new report from Brookings Mountain West provides an opportunity to see how these areas fared in the 2010-2020 decade.

Compared to the prior decade, major metro areas grew more substantially than their smaller-sized counterparts, and their cities showed growth surges—all during a decade when the nation’s population registered historically low growth. Moreover, the increased racial and ethnic diversity that characterized the nation is especially concentrated in major metro areas and, in particular, among their youth populations.

The new report examines 2020 census results to provide a detailed portrait of the nation’s 56 major metro areas in order to better understand their growth, city-suburb population shifts, racial and ethnic diversity, neighborhood segregation, and youth populations. Below is a summary of its major findings.

Major metro areas grew more slowly in the 2010s than in several prior decades, but still at higher rates than smaller metro areas

Major metro areas have seen both short- and long-term volatility in their population growth. Yet compared with prior decades, patterns of the 21st century were somewhat more subdued.

The 1990s witnessed the greatest growth for major metro areas since their postwar high in the 1960s. However, the 2000-2010 decade and, even more so, the 2010-2020 decade displayed lower national population growth than the 1990s, as immigration shifted downward, fertility declined, and, with increased population aging, deaths rose.

The 2010-2020 decade began with after-effects of the Great Recession continuing to put the brakes on job and housing availability, especially for the millennial generation, which was coming of age at the time. The economy revived somewhat as the decade continued, but population growth dipped dramatically—a result of a downturn in births as millennials put off childbearing as well as restrictive immigration policies put forth by the federal government from 2017 to 2020. Then, a few months before the 2020 census was conducted, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

U.S. population by metro area size class and growth, 1990-2000, 2000-10, 2010-20

The impact of these trends on the nation’s metropolitan population growth is evident from Figure 1. During the high-growth 1990s, major metro areas, as a group, reached a peak growth rate of 14.7%, only to dip to 10.7% in 2000-2010 and further to 9.6% in 2010-2020. The low growth rate of all metropolitan categories—major metro areas, small metro areas, and non-metropolitan areas—in the most recent decade reflects the historically low national population growth.

Still, the 2010-2020 growth rate for major metro areas was noticeably higher than for smaller metro areas (9.6% versus 7.1%). This reflects the high early-decade growth of major metro areas as movers—especially millennials—were attracted to these areas and also were, to some degree, “stuck” in them until the job and housing markets picked up later in the decade. Nonetheless, compared to the prior decade, the 2010-2020 decade was a good one for major metro area growth.

The fastest-growing major metro areas are in Sun Belt states

The nationwide metropolitan growth patterns discussed above overlie those of individual major metro areas. Reflecting changes from earlier decades, six of the fastest-growing metro areas in 2010-2020 were located in the traditional Sun Belt magnet states of Texas (Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio) and Florida (Orlando and Jacksonville), along with three southeastern metro areas (Raleigh, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn.) as well as Seattle.

Growth of major metro areas, 2010-2020

Even in this slow-growth decade, there are wide variations in major metro areas’ growth across the country. As Map 1 indicates, the high-growth/low-growth disparities lie largely along regional lines, with all of the metro areas with greater than 10% growth located in the South and West regions except three (Columbus, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul). However, the lower-growth areas are somewhat more dispersed across regions. Especially noteworthy is the relatively lower growth shown for California metro areas—both on the state’s coasts (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco) and interior (Riverside, Fresno).

Compared with the 2000s, cities grew faster and suburbs grew slower

A broad 2000-2010 dispersion of population followed by some contraction during the early 2010s affected city-suburban growth within major metro areas. Easy credit in the early and middle part of the 2000s drove accelerated migration to and growth in suburban areas. However, the housing crisis and Great Recession at the end of the decade spilled over into the 2010s, enough to stall suburbanization as would-be movers—especially millennials—choose to relocate or remain in central cities.

As a consequence, the 2010s saw uncommonly large growth in city populations while suburban growth tended to sputter. As Figure 2 shows, nationally, the primary cities of major metro areas almost doubled their growth rate, from 4.8% in 2000-2010 to 8.4% in 2010-2020. At the same time, the suburban growth rate in these metro areas diminished from 13.7% to 10.2%.

Primary City-Suburban Growth for Major Metro Areas, 2000-2010 and 2010-2020

These aggregate figures held for most individual metro areas. Comparing growth rates across both decades, primary cities in 39 of the nation’s 56 major metro areas grew faster in the 2010s than in the previous decade, while 43 of these metro areas’ suburban populations grew slower. However, it should be kept in mind that the bulk of city growth occurred in the first part of the decade. In most metro areas, suburban growth began to re-emerge to some extent as the economy picked up in the latter half of the 2010s.

All major metropolitan areas became more racially and ethnically diverse

The 2010-2020 decade continued the nation’s “diversity explosion” that was already evident in the 2010s. This was especially the case among the nation’s major metro areas. While people of color (those identifying as Latino or Hispanic, Black, Asian American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Native American/Alaska Native, or as two or more races) together comprise more than two-fifths (42%) of the total U.S. population, they now comprise over half (50.3%) of the combined populations of major metro areas.

The impact of this minority concentration is most apparent in 20 of the 56 major metro areas, where people of color now comprise more than half of the 2020 population. This was the case for only 14 major metro areas in 2010 and just nine in 1990. The newcomers to this category are metro area Dallas, Orlando, Fla., Atlanta, Sacramento, Calif., New Orleans, and Austin, Texas. As shown in Map 2, most of these are located in California and Texas, where the greatest minority populations tend to be Latino or Hispanic. Metro area Chicago is close to being next in tipping to minority-white status.

Major metro areas with "minority-white" populations, 2020

Rising diversity is not specific only to these minority-white metro areas. Each of the nation’s 56 major metro areas registered a decline in its white population share since 2010 and, in 41, the decline was 5 percentage points or more. Metro area Seattle led all others, with a decline from 68% white in 2010 to 58% in 2020. Las Vegas experienced the largest 20-year change, from 60% white in 2000 to 39% in 2020.

The increased racial and ethnic diversity of major metro areas in the 2010s is the consequence of several broad patterns, including declines or slow growth of white populations, increased dispersion of Latino or Hispanic populations, and the continued growth of Black populations in many metro areas in the South and Mountain West.

Neighborhood racial segregation varied widely across metro areas

Neighborhood racial segregation continues to persist in the United States, though it varies by group and metropolitan area. A common way to look at neighborhood segregation is with a segregation index, sometimes known as a dissimilarity index. This measures the extent to which two different groups (such white and Black populations) are unequally distributed across neighborhoods in a single metro area. The index can range from zero (complete integration) to 100 (complete segregation), where its value represents the percent of one group (e.g., Black residents) which would need to relocate to be distributed across neighborhoods equally with the other group (e.g., white residents).

Average neighborhood segregation levels for major metro areas, 2000, 2010 and 2020

For Black Americans, segregation levels range from 36 in Honolulu to 78 in Milwaukee. Thus, in Milwaukee, nearly eight in 10 Black residents would need to change neighborhoods to be distributed similarly to white residents; in Honolulu, it would be less than four in 10.

Today, many metro areas in the South and West register Black-white segregation index values of 60 and below. In sharp contrast, several northern areas with long-stagnating or declining Black populations (including Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis) continue to show segregation levels in the 70s, reflecting the persistence of past patterns. Thus, while almost all major metro areas displayed declines in their Black-white segregation levels since 2000, there remains wide variation in these levels across areas.

Latino or Hispanic and white segregation, while still substantial, is broadly lower than Black-white segregation, ranging between index values of 29 (Honolulu, Jacksonville, Fla., Seattle) to 60 (Los Angeles). Less segregated areas tend to be new destinations for Latino or Hispanic residents, located heavily in the Southeast and increasingly in the nation’s heartland. As is the case with Black-white segregation recently, segregation levels between Latino or Hispanic and white residents have modestly declined in most areas.

Segregation between Asian American and white residents is also evident, and has shifted even less than that of the other groups of color. Even though Asian Americans tend to comprise smaller shares of the metropolitan population, their segregation levels are broadly in the range of Latino or Hispanic residents. In 2020, Asian American segregation indices ranged from a low of 25 (Tucson, Ariz.) to a high of 58 (Buffalo, N.Y.). In addition to Tucson, the Mountain West metro areas of Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Denver, and Phoenix rank among those with the lowest Asian American segregation levels.

Despite recent modest declines in the neighborhood segregation of Black and Latino or Hispanic Americans—and steady levels for Asian Americans—segregation levels remain unacceptably high. Major metro area segregation index scores even at the low end (in the 30 to 40 range) mean the life experiences and access to community resources of nonwhite race-ethnic groups are very different from white residents. For Black Americans in many parts of the country, those scores rise into the 60s and 70s.

Youth populations declined and became more diverse

The 2020 census data allows for an assessment of the size and recent changes in the nation’s under-age-18 population (referred to here as the “youth” population). An especially noteworthy finding is the overall decline in this population by over 1 million during the 2010- 2020 decade. In a country that is rapidly aging, such an absolute decline in the youth population represents a demographic challenge for the future.

Similarly, as a group, major metro areas experienced a 2010-2020 loss in their youth populations. Yet there are sharp variations, as is evident in Map 3. Among the 56 major metro areas, 26 sustained 2010-2020 youth losses. While those with largest youth losses were located in the Midwest and Northeast, Los Angeles and other coastal California metro areas were also among those that registered sizeable declines.

Growth and decline of under-18 populations: Major metro areas, 2010-20

The remaining 30 major metro areas experienced youth gains, with greatest gains in the South (especially the Southeast) and Texas. Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, and Nashville gained the most youth population, although other parts of the South and West saw gains as well. Such areas had “younger populations” because of their longer-term and recent attractions of young families and immigrants.

The growth stagnation of the nation’s youth population would be even more severe were it not for the contributions of people of color. Because immigrants and their U.S.-born children, together, are younger than the rest of the population, recent decades’ immigration from Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere served to bolster the size of the nation’s youth population. Were it not for these race-ethnic groups, the last decade’s decline in the youth population would have been much more substantial. This is because the white youth population has been declining, nationally, since 2000 due to the more advanced aging of white Americans.

The pronounced racial diversity among young people is evident across the 56 major metro areas. The 2020 census shows that more than half of the youth population in 37 major metro areas are people of color, up from 24 in 2010 and 16 in 2000. The rise of youths of color is a key element of the changing demographics of America’s under-age-18 population. These groups have not only stemmed a sharp decline in the youth population but, as they age, will be driving most of the growth in the nation’s labor force.

A decade of transition for major metro areas

This analysis of the 2020 census makes plain that the 2010-2020 period represents a transitional decade for the nation’s major metro areas. The decade began in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which restricted employment and housing opportunities in new places for young, would-be migrants. After those barriers to growth and movement were removed and just before the census was taken, the nation began to encounter the downward consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this took place in the context of lower nationwide growth—the slowest since the 1930s—but also at a time when the nation and, especially, large metro areas became more racially and ethnically diverse.

This decade of transition for major metro areas—which were impacted by a unique set of economic and demographic forces—does not lead to a straightforward forecast about their future prospects, especially in light of the upheavals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the fact that they are home to nearly three-fifths of American residents and a dominant share of the nation’s economic output means that continued attention needs to be paid to how those forces relate to the well-being of these large mega-communities.