Minimum safe distance.

Census’ Time-Travelling Population Losses

Local Area Estimates Came in About Where We’d Expect

I’ve covered Census revisions in the Population Estimates program several times before. In the past, I’ve argued that, given what we know about County-level revisions, city-level revisions (released today) are likely to show that the big immigrant-heavy cities have had their recent growth overstated. That is, downward revisions were coming.

I was right.

Look at those red blotches! I’ve restricted just cities with changes of 1,000 people or greater. You’ll notice red dots are more frequent than blue ones; no shocker given US population generally was revised down in 2015. The big blue dot up left, by the way, is not Seattle, but Sammamish.

The biggest losers were NYC (-34,000), LA (-23,000), Chandler, AZ (-17,000), Houston (-11,000), Peoria, AZ (-11,000), Chicago (-7,000), San Jose (-4,000), Goodyear, AZ (-4,000), San Diego (-4,000), Tucson (-3,000), and San Francisco (-2,700). The biggest winners were Phoenix (+20,000), Sammamish (+11,000), Conroe, TX (+8,000), Mesa, AZ (+6,000), Des Moines (+4,000), Glendale, AZ (+3,000), Scottsdale, AZ (+3,000), Porterville, CA (+3,000), and Ft. Wayne (+2,000).

So, Census evidently had a little brain-freakout with Arizona. Here’s a zoom-in on Arizona, showing all cities with over 500-person change.

This is, to put it bluntly, an unusual density of offsetting revisions. Looking at just the Phoenix MSA, major city-level revisions make -9,755, which is what we’d expect given the downward revisions in national immigrant totals.

Arizona isn’t the only busy state! California is too! But that’s just a product of having lots of cities.

Let’s look at the biggest cities in the nation in 2015 according to the 2015 estimates, and see how they changed. Here it is in absolute value, 2016 vs 2015 estimates:

So you can see that Houston got a cut going back all the way to 2010, while all the others just saw changes in growth. And all of the top 10 got net cuts except Phoenix, but, as we saw, Arizona is kind of a weird case this year.

Now, maybe you’re saying, “Lyman, those are small numbers! They don’t matter!”

Here’s Philadelphia and Phoenix population series under V2015 and V2016:

If you’re the sort of person who cares about the top-10 rankings then these measures matter. Because instead of surpassing Philadelphia in 2016 probably, Phoenix now surpassed Philadelphia in 2014. That seems meaningful.


I also want to zoom in one some Kentucky cities. We’ll start with Pikeville. I’ve written about Pikeville before. Below is an updated chart with the newest population estimates (note that I did not update Greater Pikeville estimates because those use ACS, and they already reflect the most up-to-date ACS data).

First of all, you’ll note that Pikeville’s population has been revised higher by an appreciable amount. But second, you’ll note that Census continues to suggest there’s been a decline recently. Pikeville may have been enjoying a wave related to collegiate expansion (and associated construction jobs). But then again, they’ve had declines before and always recovered.

Next up, Ashland, Kentucky!

So first, the good news! The 2016 estimates represent an upward revision for 2014 and 2015 population! These estimates are still below what 2011, 2013, or 2014 might have suggested, but are above the dire estimates of 2012. That said, decline continued apace, with Ashland losing more than 100 people.

We can also look at my hometown of Wilmore!

As you can see, estimates continue to rise. A difference in treatment of students before 2013 makes 2011 and 2012 estimates incomparable.

We can also look at the big cities in Kentucky, Lexington and Louisville.

As you can see, Lexington had its population revised downwards in 2012–2014, but then a revision upwards in 2015, and strong growth in 2016. But broadly, revisions here are very small compared to growth.

Louisville is a different story.

Although Louisville is still growing, its population has faced continual downward revisions, even as its growth rate slows. This suggests Louisville could be facing the early stages of population decline. The city government needs to think about how they intend to respond to these continual estimate downgrades and slowing growth.

Here’s the population difference between Lexington and Louisville for each year-estimate:

And here’s their population ratio:

In terms of the population ratio, 2016 was actually a relative improvement for Louisville for 2012–2014, but then a sharp drop since.


Lastly, I’ll look at our two biggest loser cities in terms of revisions: NYC and LA.

First up, New York!

As you can see, New York saw successively higher and higher population estimates and growth rates in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Then 2015 pretty much stayed even with 2014. And now 2016 has fallen halfway back down to 2013, and shows the lowest rate of growth (0.25%) of any estimate series for any year since 2010. Again, falling estimates and growth rates is the kind of thing we should see as a warning sign that declines may be about to set in, though the recency of New York’s estimate cut makes me less worried than for Louisville.

Los Angeles’ story is a bit different. Its forecasts have varied. Estimates and growth rates were cut from 2012 to 2013, then raised in 2014, raised again in 2015, and have been cut in 2016. Right now, LA looks at our below the 2012-estimate growth trajectory. But unlike New York, its growth rate isn’t falling sharply across the time series. So Los Angeles has had a population and growth downgrade since the last estimates, but there’s only a very moderate decline in growth rates estimates.


Census estimates revisions are a big deal. They can meaningfully change how we conceptualize the growth patterns of cities. When commentators report on just the YoY change in the latest estimate vintage, they miss a key part of the story of what’s actually changing. In this estimate revision, we saw big downgrades for very immigrant-dependent cities, alongside upgrades for a number of more suburban areas. This is no surprise and, truth be told, will probably continue into 2017 at least. 2018–2020 remains less certain, but, at this point, any gain the blue states may have hoped to make in the Electoral College from urban recovery is looking extremely unlikely.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.