After losing population in the 1980s, Denver grew rapidly in the 1990s thanks to its continuing emergence as a gateway for immigrants and a destination for young, mobile workers.
Denver’s population grew by nearly 19 percent in the 1990s, more than reversing its 5 percent population decline in the 1980s. This growth was almost entirely attributable to an increase in the city’s Hispanic population, the majority of whom are immigrants from Mexico. The foreign-born now represent over one-sixth of Denver’s population, and help account for the city’s youthful profile. Denver’s population turnaround, however, occurred in the midst of continued decentralization. The Denver suburbs grew nearly twice as fast as the central city in the 1990s, and half of the region’s workers now commute between homes and jobs in the suburbs.
The economic profile of the Denver region is healthy, underpinned by high levels of education and labor force participation. Among the 23 Living Cities, Denver had the second-fastest growth in household incomes, the sixth-highest share of college graduates in 2000, and the lowest poverty rate among African Americans. Yet gaps between whites and minorities—particularly Hispanics—on educational attainment leave many of the city’s families with only modest incomes. Those families may be facing increasing difficulties obtaining affordable housing, as rents increased faster in Denver than in any other Living City in the 1990s.
Along these lines and others, then, Denver in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 concludes that:
- Denver’s population rebounded in the 1990s, but the region continues to decentralize. After losing 5 percent of its population during the oil bust of the 1980s, Denver rebounded in the 1990s by gaining 87,000 new residents. Most of the city’s neighborhoods added residents as population citywide increased by 19 percent. At the same time, the growth of Denver’s suburbs accelerated. Areas outside the central city grew by over one-third in the 1990s, the fourth-fastest rate of suburban growth among the 23 Living Cities. Meanwhile, as people moved farther out in the region, so did jobs. About half of all commutes in the region begin and end in the suburbs, and a below-average proportion of Denver residents work within the central city.
- Racial and ethnic diversity is on the rise in Denver due to increasing immigration. The share of Denver residents who are of Hispanic origin increased from 23 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2000. Driving this trend was a near-tripling of Denver’s foreign-born population during the decade—the second-largest such rise among the 23 Living Cities. Nearly two-thirds of Denver’s foreign-born come from Mexico, and smaller numbers hail from Southeast Asian and European countries. Because 62 percent of the city’s foreign-born residents arrived in the country in the last ten years, Denver may face unique challenges in connecting these newcomers to the economic, political, and educational mainstream.
- Residents of Denver are young and mobile. Baby Boomers aged 35 to 54 are by far the nation’s largest age cohorts, but people in their late 20s and early 30s make up Denver’s largest age groups. Thanks to this age tilt, few of the city’s households contain married couples; most consist of people living alone or with other nonrelatives. In addition to attracting young people from abroad, Denver was a magnet for domestic migrants in the U.S. during the 1990s. One-third of all residents lived in a different city five years ago, the highest proportion among the 23 Living Cities, and the city gained a significant number of 25- to 34-year-olds even as their numbers declined nationwide.
- Denver’s workforce is highly educated, although wide educational attainment gaps between whites and minority groups persist. Among the 23 Living Cities, Denver ranks sixth in the share of its adults who hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Still, racial and ethnic minorities lag far behind their white counterparts in educational attainment. Eighteen percent of blacks and only 8 percent of Hispanics hold bachelor’s degrees, compared to 48 percent of whites. Meanwhile, the share of Denver adults who have graduated from high school fell slightly between 1990 and 2000—one of only a few cities in which this occurred. This trend reflects not only the recency of Latin American immigration to the city of Denver, but also location shifts of more educated workers around the region.
- High levels of work contribute to the economic success of most Denver residents. Households in each part of the income distribution increased in number in Denver during the 1990s. Because higher-income households grew fastest, the city’s median household income increased by 17 percent—the second-fastest rise among the 23 Living Cities. Denver’s poverty rate declined significantly, and the city has the lowest poverty rate among African Americans of any Living City. Yet many families still struggle to make ends meet—moderate-income households earning $18,000 to $34,000 make up more than a fifth of all Denver households.
- Homeownership rose in Denver during the 1990s for nearly all racial groups, but costs are rising for renters. Denver experienced a considerable rise in its homeownership rate during the 1990s, and 53 percent of its residents owned their own homes in 2000. Significantly, homeownership increased most rapidly for the city’s Hispanic households. At the same time, in-migration to Denver and rising household incomes in the 1990s produced a rapid run-up in rents. Median rental costs increased 24 percent between 1990 and 2000, the highest such rise among the 23 Living Cities. These costs highlight what may be a growing need for affordable housing among the city’s moderate-income families, 42 percent of whom paid at least 30 percent of their income on rent in 2000.
By presenting the indicators on the following pages, Denver in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 seeks to give readers a better sense of where Denver and its residents stand in relation to their peers, and how the 1990s shaped the city, its neighborhoods, and the entire Denver region. Living Cities and the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy hope that this information will prompt a fruitful dialogue among city and community leaders about the direction Denver should take in the coming decade.