The State of Metropolitan America

(August 2010) The State of Metropolitan America, by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, identifies five demographic trends and developments that dominated the first decade of the 2000s in the 100 largest metro areas of the United States. Since the report covers the majority of the U.S. population—two-thirds of Americans live in the hundred largest metropolitan areas—it provides a preview of some of the long-term trends that will appear in the results of the 2010 Census.

Metro Areas Grew Faster Than Other Areas of the United States

The population in metro areas grew faster than the rest of the country in the 2000s. The total population of the United States increased by 9 percent during the first decade of the 2000s, compared with 11 percent in the hundred largest metropolitan areas. Growth in metro areas accounted for over 75 percent of the overall population increase in the United States since 2000. Metropolitan expansion was concentrated in the outer suburbs, which grew at three times the rate of high-density inner suburbs and cities. However, not all metro areas experienced growth equally. In the first half of the decade, migration from the northern regions toward the warmer areas of the southern United States and rapid expansion in the suburbs were the dominant trends. During the second part of the decade, the housing market bust, combined with the recession, slowed growth in both the Sun Belt (southern United States) and in the suburbs. Domestic migration dropped to the lowest level since World War II. However, in several gateway metro areas such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami, immigration balanced domestic resident outmigration and ensured that these areas continued to expand.

Immigration’s Effects on U.S. Population

The racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. population is changing and immigration has been a major contributor to the transformation. The proportion of non-Hispanic whites in the population has been declining steadily, from 76 percent of U.S. residents in 1990 to 66 percent at the end of the 2000s. Minorities accounted for 83 percent of population growth in the United States since 2000, mostly through immigration and relatively high fertility rates among minority groups, especially Latinos. Minorities were heavily concentrated in large metro areas in the 2000s; 46 percent of net gains in population due to immigration took place in the eight largest metro areas during the decade. For the first time in history, a majority of Hispanics, blacks, and Asians in large metro areas lived in the suburbs, although about two-thirds of the suburban population remained non-Hispanic white.


The rapid growth of the population ages 65 and older was perhaps the most demographically influential trend in America during the decade. Starting in 2011, when the first wave of baby boomers turn 65, elderly people will represent a larger and larger share of the total population. Between 2010 and 2030, the number of people age 65 or older will grow by more than 30 percent, while total population growth will be between 8 percent and 9 percent per decade. However, since 2000, growth in the elderly population has been uneven across the country. The metro areas that experienced above-average growth in the 55-to-64 age group were concentrated in the western and southern regions of the United States. The rapid aging of the population in some of these areas is best explained not by elderly migration, but by “aging in place.” As they became older, residents decided to remain in the same metropolitan areas that previously attracted them as working-age migrants and there were not enough young families moving into these areas to offset the growing number of elderly residents. Suburban areas in particular experienced rapid growth in their older populations: At the end of the 2000s, close to 40 percent of suburban residents were age 45 or older and their numbers were growing faster in the suburbs than in the cities. Aging baby boomers have put demands on housing and contributed to economic growth in areas where they remained in the labor force. However, areas in the Northwest and Midwest that lost working-age residents during the recession will have disproportionately more elderly who will need social support, subsidized housing, and affordable health care. These services have traditionally been centered in cities, and the challenge will be to provide these services farther from city centers.

Educational Disparities

The demand for higher education increased throughout the United States during the 2000s, although rates of educational attainment varied by racial/ethnic group and region. In 1990, 75 percent of all adults had at least a high school diploma and 26 percent had a postsecondary degree. By 2008, the rates increased to 84 percent and 35 percent, respectively. However, the distribution of these education gains was uneven. Thirteen percent of Hispanics, 18 percent of African Americans, 31 percent of non-Hispanic whites, and 50 percent of Asians had a four-year college degree in 2008. Levels of education increased for all racial/ethnic groups since 2000, but the gaps between groups remained substantial and varied in different parts of the country. Blacks had the lowest percentages of college degrees in manufacturing metro areas in the Midwest and South, while western states with many lower-skilled immigrant groups had the lowest Hispanic education levels. While enrollment figures at postsecondary institutions rose nationwide, completion rates remained unchanged over the decade.

Rising Poverty Rates

Real household income declined, incomes grew more polarized, and the size of the middle class shrunk during the decade. Between 1999 and 2008, real household median income in the United States decreased by $2,241 to $52,029. Metro areas in Midwestern regions were hit severely, where the median income shrank by more than 8 percent. Wage gaps between high- and low-wage workers grew in all but five of the hundred largest metro areas during the 2000s. On the other hand, the gap between city and suburban incomes diminished, mostly because of declining suburban median incomes. Since 2000, the number of people living in poverty grew more rapidly in the suburbs than in the cities. By 2008, the suburbs of the hundred largest metro areas housed almost one-third of the country’s poor; 1.5 million more than the cities of these same metro areas. Additionally, inequalities increased among regions. In the beginning of the decade, the South had the lowest median income, while the Northwest had the highest. Since incomes in the South fell more rapidly than those in the Northeast, the income gap further increased during the 2000s. This gap, coupled with increasing unemployment in metro areas hit hardest by the housing bust and the problems in the auto industry, led to growing poverty in the United States.

Poverty rates vary widely by race and ethnicity. Blacks (25 percent) and Latinos (23 percent) have the highest poverty rates while whites (9 percent) and Asian Americans (12 percent) have the lowest rates.

Kata Fustos is an intern at the Population Reference Bureau.