New estimates released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau show population declines in both Monroe County and the Rochester metropolitan area. If the numbers align with 2020 Census data to be released later this year, it will mark a troubling break with long-term growth trends in the county and metro region.
That’s a sizable if, however. When the state-level decennial data was released a week ago, New York posted a modest gain—823,000 people, or 4.2 percent—compared with 2010. In December, the Census Bureau had estimated that New York’s population was 40,000 smaller than a decade ago.
If the 2020 census data in fact does confirm the declining population here shown in the estimates, several factors explain the drop, the numbers released this week suggest.
The estimates, as of July 1, 2020, show Monroe County’s population declined by nearly 3,500, or 0.5 percent, over the last decade, slipping to 740,900 from 744,344. In the 12 months ended last July, the county population dropped by 1,705.
The 10-year change in the estimates for the metro area was an even bigger drop: a decline of more than 12,200, or 1.1 percent, to 1,067,486 from 1,079,702.
Only Ontario County gained population, a modest 1.8 percent increase, or 1,985 people. Elsewhere in the region, the numbers were lower than in 2010: Orleans County, -6.8 percent; Wayne County, -4.7 percent; Livingston County, -4.3 percent; and Yates County, -2.3 percent.
Metropolitan Rochester has never posted a population decline in decennial census data since 1900, growing from 217,854 at the start of the 20th century to 1,079,671 in 2010. Monroe County’s population has climbed from 49,855 in 1830 to nearly 745,000 in 2010 with only one 10-year dip recorded: a 1.4 percent decline from 1970 to 1980.
No single factor explains the loss of residents seen in the census estimates. Rather, several appear to be at work:
■ a downward trend in the region’s two most populous counties, which together account for 80 percent of the metro population: a decline in Monroe County starting around 2014, and slower growth in Ontario County;
■ a reversal in the gap between births and deaths, with the “natural increase” change in population dropping from a high of births outnumbering deaths by 2,409 in 2011 to a low of deaths exceeding births by 20 in 2020;
■ a surge of domestic outmigration from 2014 through 2017, with a peak of 7,427 in 2016;
■ a generally steady increase in the net domestic migration deficit over the 10-year period, with a peak net outflow of 4,659 in 2015; and
■ a decline over the last few years in the number of immigrants arriving here, dropping from a high of nearly 3,000 in 2016 to 882 in 2019 and 1,193 in 2020. (The importance of immigration is illustrated by data from the 2009-2017 period, when the number of foreign-born residents jumped 14 percent while the native population grew only 4 percent.)
Given the July 2020 end date for the collection of the estimates data, the numbers released this week might have failed to capture a shift that could counteract declines in recent years: the movement of people away from large urban centers after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, including younger people with the ability to work remotely who returned to their hometowns. It will be some time before data tracking population mobility during the pandemic are available.
The latest estimates, though, suggest that any optimism on this front should be tempered with a healthy dose of caution: While population declined slightly year over year in large metros in urban counties nationwide, all other metro categories—large metros with higher- and lower-density suburbs, midsize metros and small metros—gained residents. If the Rochester region had kept pace with its peers across the country, we would have posted a population gain, even if it lagged the more than 6 percent increase in the total U.S. population.
Until the decennial numbers are released, many questions about changes in the metro and Monroe County populations over the last decade will remain unanswered. But this much is clear: Even if we eke out a small gain in the final 2020 census numbers, the truly robust population growth is occurring elsewhere.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.