Politics Move Left, Americans Move Right
In an election year in which the top likely candidates come from New York, big cities arguably dominate American politics more than at any time since New Deal. The dynamics of urban politics, which are characterized by high levels of inequality and racial tensions—may be pushing Democrats ever further to the left and Republicans toward the inchoate resentment of Donald Trump.
Yet if politics are now being dominated by big cities along the coasts, the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that when it comes to their own lives, Americans are moving increasingly elsewhere, largely to generally Republican-leaning suburbs and Sunbelt states. In other words, politics and power are headed one way, demographics the other.
Perhaps no American president has been less sympathetic to suburbs than Barack Obama. Shaun Donovan, Obama’s first secretary of Housing and Urban Development, proclaimed the suburbs’ were “over” as people were “voting with their feet” and moving to dense, transit-oriented urban centers. More recently, Donovan’s successor, Julian Castro, has targeted suburbs by proposing to force them to densify and take more poor people into their communities. Other Democrats, notably California’s Jerry Brown, have sought to use concerns over climate change to make future suburban development all but impossible.
This divergence between politics and how people choose to live has never been greater. As economist Jed Kolko has observed, the perceived “historic” shift back to the inner city has turned out to be a relatively brief phenomena. Since 2012, suburbs and exurbs, which have seven times as many people, again are growing faster than core cities.
This is not likely to be a short-lived phenomena. Generally speaking, Kolko notes that an aging population tends to make the country more suburban. The overwhelming trend among seniors is not to move “back to the city” but to stay in or move out to suburban or exurban areas. Between 2000 and 2012, notes demographer Wendell Cox, 99.6 percent of the senior population increase in major metropolitan areas was in the suburbs, a gain of 4.3 million compared to the gain of 17,000 in the urban core.
There is also the well-demonstrated tendency for people entering their 30s, prime child-bearing age, to move to suburban locations for safety, space and better schools. Here’s the basic score: Core counties last year lost a net 185,000 domestic migrants, while the suburban counties gained 187,000. Rather than a reversal of suburbanizing trends, we see something of an acceleration.
Primarily Republican-leaning areas may be losing their political power for now, but their demographic growth is relentless. Like the suburbs, the sprawling Sunbelt metros were widely predicted by urban pundits to be heading toward an inevitable extinction.
Yet the 2015 census data shows something quite different: Virtually every fast-growing metro region in the country is located far from the Eastern Seaboard, and increasingly outside of California. Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Phoenix each gained more people last year than either New York or Los Angeles, which are three to four times larger.
Among America’s 53 largest metropolitan areas, nine of the 10 fastest-growing ones are in the Sunbelt: Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, Houston, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, Nashville and Tampa-St. Petersburg. The only outlier is Denver, which has become a destination for people and companies fleeing higher priced areas, particularly the West Coast.
Perhaps even more revealing are the trends in domestic migration. The leaders in total domestic net migration parallel almost precisely those that have experienced the strongest total population growth, led by Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix; together these metro areas added 150,000 net domestic residents. In percentage terms the big winners are Austin, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Raleigh, and Orlando.
So which states are losing out among domestic migrants? The biggest loser is the home of our likely next president. New York experienced a net out-migration of 160,000 between 2014 and 2015. Over the past five years its metropolitan area has lost 701,000 net domestic migrants after suffering a population loss of nearly 2 million in the first decade of the new millennium. Chicago and Los Angeles also have experienced net out-migration as have some cities—such as San Jose and Washington, D.C.—even as they experienced impressive economic booms.
These latest numbers confirm the likelihood that highly suburbanized areas, particularly in the Sunbelt, will continue to represent our demographic future. For all the hype and hysteria surrounding the urban revival, dense cities are not irresistible lures to most people. For the most part, they are experiencing sub-normal, and even declining, growth. The most urban of our urban cores, New York City, illustrates this slackening of population. For one year, the Big Apple grew at 1.2 percent (2011), above the national average of 0.7 percent. Yet, its growth dropped in 2015 to 0.6 percent, well below the national average. Brooklyn’s population growth declined in half from 2011 to 2015, while Manhattan’s declined by two-thirds. The only borough to show strong growth has been its poorest, the Bronx.
None of this suggests that dense core cities are irrelevant to the future. As economist Kolko suggests, inner city gentrification, particularly close to the urban core, has accompanied strong income growth and remains attractive to relatively small parts of the population: the highly educated, the affluent childless, single as well as the uber-rich. These places loom large also because that’s where the media is increasingly concentrated. And with a big city, East Coast-oriented person in the Oval Office next year, they could find themselves more influential, at least in the short run, than at any time in recent history.
This divergence between power and population sets the stage for future political conflicts, particularly given likely Democratic Party electoral gains this year. Attempts to crack down on suburban housing and resource industries, notably fossil fuels, seems likely to hit hardest many places that are growing quickly, and which generally lean to the GOP.
It could well be, as some progressives have forecast for over a decade, that the movement of New Yorkers and Californians, combined with the growth of minorities, in places like Texas and Arizona will paint these places Democratic blue. This seems reasonable, but what happens when Washington adopts policies that clearly hurt the new suburban homeowners, and the industries that have sparked Sunbelt growth?
The new Texans and Arizonans may well be more socially liberal than the current denizens, but one has to wonder if they would like to see the prospect of better professional opportunities and affordable homes squelched by Washington’s urban-centric elite.
This could turn out to be a bad election for those middle American aspirations, but over time progressive triumphalism could engender a grassroots rebellion capable of overturning the 2016 election results in shockingly fast fashion.