What will America look like in 2030?
We can already see that the population is aging and becoming more diverse, but how will those trends play out at the local and regional levels? And what if, in the future, we live longer or have more babies? How would those trends affect the population in different cities and states?
These demographic shifts matter a great deal to states and local communities. Las Vegas is scrambling to build enough schools to accommodate the city’s recent population boom. Meanwhile, Detroit is figuring out how to downsize wisely to match a shrinking population that may shrink even more.
To help visualize the future, the Urban Institute developed a tool as part of the “Mapping America’s Futures” series that projects local-level population trends out to 2030 (the button on the right will take you there). Pick low, average, or high rates for birth, death, and migration—the three drivers of population change—and the map changes in response.
The rates are all reasonable assumptions, based on historical trends. In other words, it won’t show a future where no children are born and no one dies, but we could imagine a future where people move around more or birthrates fall by 20 percent. With the tool, people can explore several possible “what-if” scenarios—possible futures—and see how they’ll play out across the country.
A future with more births and longer lives looks very different from one with fewer births and high mortality. And migration—one of the most difficult forces to predict—can change areas rapidly, not just in sheer numbers, but also in terms of an area’s racial and ethnic makeup, its workers and tax base, its demand for housing and for government services, and, arguably, its character.
To better understand how population projections can help cities and states plan for change, let’s look at two places on two different trajectories: Atlanta, Georgia, and Youngstown, Ohio.
Mapping America’s Futures divides the nation into 740 commuting zones: places connected by local economies, which can cross state boundaries, and that include metro and rural areas. An important difference between the Youngstown and Atlanta commuting zones is what happens when you change the migration rate—that is, the rate of immigration as well as domestic migration within the United States.
A once-booming industrial powerhouse, the Youngstown area has been losing residents for decades. Many other manufacturing centers, from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh, grew slowly or lost population over the past decade, following a long-time trend of people migrating from the North to the South.
In 2010, the Youngstown commuting zone had a population of 762,509, down from 807,265 in 2000. Prevailing migration trends are away from the industrial North and toward the South; many economic changes underlie those trends. If migration slowed, Youngstown might retain more of its young, working-age population.
To illustrate that, set the tool to low migration (and average birth and death rates) and Youngstown’s population only declines by 5 percent by 2030; switch it to high and the area loses 14 percent.
“Fewer people means less demand for housing, which means lower property tax revenues,” said Rolf Pendall, director of Urban’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “And it will cause a strain on government resources because the out-migration would reduce the labor force,” decreasing tax revenue to pay for things like roads, schools, utilities, and public services.
Youngstown is also projected to have a high and growing share of residents age 65 and older—up 42 percent by 2030 under the average scenario. This is the age range when people typically retire, further lowering labor force participation.
In Atlanta, the same forces have different effects. The Atlanta commuting zone grew by 899,149 people from 2000 to 2010, many of whom were drawn to the area’s economic growth and warm climate. Other areas in the South also grew, including commuting zones from southern Virginia to Birmingham, Alabama; Austin, Dallas, Houston, and other parts of Texas, propelled by high oil and gas prices; and central Florida, which was buoyed by tourism and real estate construction.
Unlike in Youngstown, migration favors Atlanta and other fast-growth areas. Less migration means the population would grow 43 percent by 2030—not insignificant, but far less than the tremendous 72 percent growth Atlanta would see under a future in which people move around the country more. The percentages won’t be exact in 2030, but they point to a consistent pattern of growth.
But can Atlanta handle that kind of population boom? Can Texas or other fast-growth areas?
“Water scarcity is an increasing issue in Georgia and Texas for urban users,” Pendall said. “And the southeast Atlantic Coast has the greatest hazards of hurricanes, coastal flooding, and the potential impact of climate change on severe weather. A lot of people are moving to areas where they will be exposed to those kinds of risks.”
Also, like Youngstown, Atlanta will see more people in the future who are not in the labor force—not because working-age people are leaving, but as a natural consequence of a growing population. A share of working-age people in any area are likely to be unemployed, disabled and unable to work, or out of the labor force temporarily while going to college, raising a family, or taking care of an ailing relative. Even if that share stays the same as the population grows, the number of people outside the work force will also grow.
“With Atlanta, you might think, great, the economy and the population are booming, but that doesn’t protect it from having to think carefully about its changing labor force,” said Steven Martin, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “Atlanta will also have a proportionate large growth in needs—such as for public transportation and schools and workforce development training—and they don’t have the infrastructure in place yet to deal with it.”
Mapping America’s Futures also allows users to filter by age and race categories to see how specific subpopulations may change in the future.
By 2030, the population of the United States age 65 and over will increase dramatically, putting pressure on health and long-term care services and government programs funded by a smaller base of taxpayers. Pick the average birth, death, and migration rates and Boise’s 65-and-over population goes up by 140 percent. Raleigh’s grows by 151 percent and Albuquerque’s by 111 percent.
This isn’t news. But the aging of America overshadows another equally important story: the substantial number of young people in every city and state who also rely on taxpayer investments. They’re the children of the Millennials, many of whom haven’t been born yet. And states and localities will need to invest in their education, health care, and other needs, even in the face of higher demand for services for the elderly.
“We have a lot of children to take care of and nobody’s talking about that,” said Nan Astone, Urban Institute senior fellow. “Because the national debate about aging dominates the conversation, you’d think that the younger population was decreasing, but it’s not… and states will be increasingly strapped.”
The state and local picture is particularly important for the young population, Astone said, because states spend more on children and youth than the federal government does. States also pay for programs and services for the elderly. What’s more, in many commuting zones, the working-age population who pay the taxes necessary to invest in seniors and youth is growing slowly or declining, putting extreme pressure on government budgets.
Even where the working-age population is projected to grow, like in Atlanta, the number of young people will also increase, creating new demands for resources and infrastructure, like more teachers and classrooms.
The future racial and ethnic make-up of a commuting zone is useful information for nonprofits, schools, and city planners, said William Fulton, San Diego’s former planning director.
“Generally speaking, we see that different populations live together in different household sizes and often have different levels of educational attainment. And, partly as a result of those things, they have different commuting patterns,” said Fulton, who also served as mayor of Ventura, California. “So, knowing the components of the population…is very valuable” for state and local governments.
The population nationwide is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse—and that’s true in nearly every commuting zone.
“Pretty much the entire United States is becoming at least a little less white,” Martin said. “Not only are white shares decreasing nationwide, but they are decreasing everywhere—in the Midwest and the Southeast, in big cities and in rural areas, in places where whites are leaving and in places where whites are moving to.”
The Hispanic share of the population is expected to increase almost everywhere, especially in the South, by 2030. Hispanic women have had higher birthrates than other ethnic groups, but those rates have come down and might come down more in the future.
“Even so, Hispanic shares of the population will almost certainly grow in most places because of in-migration,” Martin said. “And because the Hispanic population is relatively young, it likely won’t experience high mortality rates until after 2030.”
What’s happening among the black population varies more by commuting zone. Blacks began leaving the South in the 1930s for urban centers in the North that offered greater economic opportunities—such as auto industry jobs in Detroit and Chicago—and more freedom from institutionalized violence, Pendall said. But as those industries declined, blacks began returning to the South—partly for jobs, but also to reconnect with family and cultural ties.
What’s more, in the South, blacks are projected to move out of rural areas and into more populous commuting zones. In the North, the reverse is happening, with blacks moving out of the most populous commuting zones and into more rural areas. Though the black population is still projected to grow overall in the North, the black share of the population is expected to shrink in large commuting zones like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.
When he was director of San Diego’s planning commission, Fulton used projections like these to guide city planning and combat perceptions about how change was occurring.
“Sometimes, people’s idea of what their community is like gets fixed at a fairly early age when they buy a house and when they have kids, and it’s hard for them to change that later on,” he said. “If you have statistical information, I think it becomes more possible to have a conversation about how things are changing and what you’re going to do about it.”
Policies can still change our course. Immigration reform could affect the number of immigrants who come here and where they live, depending on whether reform leads to more work visas or more immigrants coming to reunite with family. Local policies can have an effect too. In some high-cost areas, restrictions on development that make housing too expensive could prompt young households to leave. And decisions about health insurance coverage could make a difference in rates of birth and death.
Climate change and natural disasters could significantly affect where people can or want to live. And advances in technology may affect migration, lifespans, and birth rates, Pendall said.
In other words, the future is still open: our actions and our policies can still shape what will happen.
“Considering the range of what-ifs,” Pendall said, “it only makes sense to have tools that allow us to see how those many possibilities might affect the population landscape of the United States.”
Test possible scenarios for how the US population might change by 2020 and 2030. The results will change depending on whether you choose low, average, or high rates for future births, deaths, or migration.