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Urban Comeback in New Jersey

May 5th, 2020 by

New Jersey Future has always paid attention to population changes in the state.  Where are people living?  Where are they moving to and from? And what is driving these changes?  Today, we add another variable for why people may choose to move—the consequences of a global pandemic on where people live and work. We will need to wait for more data to see if the pandemic has affected these decisions.There are other important population trends that form a backdrop for what the future will bring.  Today we highlight one of those very recent trends.  

Slow Growth Transitions to Loss

In 2019, something happened in New Jersey that hadn’t happened since the 1970s: the state experienced a year-to-year population loss, with total population declining by 0.04 percent, or 3,835 residents, between 2018 and 2019. With the Census Bureau’s recent release of 2019 county population estimates, it is now possible to get a look at which parts of the state are contributing to New Jersey’s overall population loss.

The losses are happening all over the state. Only six of New Jersey’s 21 counties gained population last year—Ocean, Burlington, Hudson, Essex, Gloucester, and Camden (in descending order of percent increase)—although even most of these were very small gains. Ocean County was effectively an outlier, gaining 5,708 residents compared to 2018, for a 0.95 percent increase. Burlington was a distant second with an increase of 604 (+ 0.14 percent); the other four counties’ growth rates were all less than 0.1 percent.

Is the Urban Comeback Losing Steam? (Answer: Not in New Jersey)

From too great a distance, it might be tempting to attribute New Jersey’s population loss to a (supposed) national trend away from cities, a trend that is both overstated and based on imprecise use of geography.  New Jersey is indeed the most urbanized state in the country, and its population is dominated by “suburbs” of two of the country’s largest cities, New York and Philadelphia. Sixteen of New Jersey’s 21 counties—comprising 89 percent of its population—fall within either the New York or Philadelphia metropolitan areas, and the other five comprise or are components of smaller metros. If there were a movement away from urban areas, New Jersey certainly seems like the sort of place where such a movement would manifest itself.

But looking at a finer level of geography, New Jersey illustrates that the fate of a metropolitan area’s largest city and the fate of other parts of that metro area are not necessarily the same. Yes, New York City has now lost population for three years in a row, and this year, all five boroughs (each of which is its own county) lost population. (Staten Island, aka Richmond County, had been the lone borough that was still gaining population up through 2018.) This is indeed a dramatic turnaround from earlier in the decade, when New York was a poster child for the nation’s urban revival that started around the end of last decade. Between 2010 and 2015, New York’s annual population gains averaged 57,604, for a total gain of 288,000 people for the first half of the decade. Between 2015 and 2019, in contrast, the average annual change has been a loss of 31,558, for a total loss of 126,000 people since 2015.  New York appears to be becoming a victim of its own success, with high housing costs driving longtime residents away and with fewer and fewer households who can afford to move in from elsewhere to replace them.

However, the problems affecting New York City are not necessarily also affecting the rest of the New York metropolitan area, or even its other big cities.  Among New Jersey’s handful of counties that bucked the trend and gained population between 2018 and 2019 were Hudson and Essex, the state’s two most densely populated counties and home to Jersey City and Newark, respectively. The North Jersey urban core counties (Bergen, Passaic, Hudson, Essex, and Union) have been the state’s growth engine for the past decade, as members of the Millennial generation have expressed their preference for compact, walkable cities, towns, and older suburban downtowns, so it is not surprising to see two of those counties among the few in the state that are still gaining people. It is probably also not an accident that Hudson and Essex are two of the top three immigrant-destination counties in the state (Middlesex is the third). Whatever the causes of New Jersey’s overall population loss — and the national drop in immigration is certainly one of them — those losses are mitigated by still-robust levels of immigration in Hudson and Essex.

More evidence against the “big cities are declining” theory can be found to the south, in Philadelphia and its South Jersey suburbs.  The three suburban Philadelphia counties—Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester—that make up half of New Jersey’s six still-growing counties are following a pattern that holds throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The city of Philadelphia (which constitutes its own county) and all four of its suburban counties in Pennsylvania (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery) also gained population from 2018 to 2019. Philadelphia has gained population every year this decade, although the increases in the last two years have been considerably smaller than they were earlier in the decade. (Salem County is also part of the Philadelphia metro but is considerably more rural and has been losing population steadily all decade, similar to the rest of far southern New Jersey—Cumberland, Atlantic, and Cape May counties.) The Philadelphia area stands in distinct contrast to New York in this regard, although perhaps not for long, if the last two years of much slower growth are a harbinger of a coming reversal in Philadelphia, as has happened in New York.

No “Return to the Suburbs”

Meanwhile, among the types of places that the national storyline posits as the beneficiaries of urban stagnation — suburban and exurban counties — most are also losing population in North Jersey.  And it’s not just the more urbanized inner-suburban counties like Bergen, Passaic, and Union.  In fact, the losses are larger, in percentage terms, in the more stereotypical car-oriented suburban counties of Morris, Somerset, and Monmouth, and in the exurban fringe of Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon. So much for the “return to the suburbs” narrative.

The one notable exception is Ocean County, which is unusual in being the only county in New Jersey that is actually experiencing a net gain from domestic migration during this decade. That is, Ocean is the only county for which it is true that more people have moved into the county from elsewhere in the United States (including elsewhere in New Jersey) since 2010 than have moved out of the county to other parts of the state or country.  Of Ocean County’s total increase of just more than 30,000 people since 2010, more than half—a little more than 18,000— has been from net domestic in-migration. Ocean County attracts very few international immigrants compared to other New Jersey counties, so it really is domestic in-migrants who are driving the county’s growth, which is not true anywhere else in the state.  The county’s status as a retirement destination, and the role of rapidly-growing Lakewood (the county’s largest population center, and the seventh most populous municipality in the state) as a magnet for the Orthodox Jewish community, are likely responsible.

Multiple Factors Converging

As New Jersey Future’s analysis of state population changes earlier this year observed, the state’s population loss is a product of several factors layered on top of one another.  Net domestic out-migration continues to be a problem, but it has not gotten appreciably worse in the last few years.  Rather, declines in international immigration and natural increase (births minus deaths) are throwing the underlying domestic outflow into sharper relief.  New Jersey could formerly rely on those other two components of population change to mask losses of migrants to other states, but the national dropoffs in those other two components are now exposing the state’s ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining young adults. If Millennials keep leaving the state because they can’t afford to stay here, this year’s small but geographically widespread population losses may portend a longer-term decline.


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