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Harris County is not growing the way it used to

And the reason for that is that people aren’t moving here the way they used to. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There’s been a lot of publicity lately about the fact that in the last couple of years, Harris County has not been the population growth machine it’s been in the past – while nationwide the suburbs are now growing faster than core urban areas.

As we reported not long ago, the most recent Census estimates show that metro Houston fell far behind metro Dallas in population growth last year, after several years in the No. 1 spot. Meanwhile, the Census found that last year Harris County fell far behind Maricopa County, Arizona, which is now the No. 1 county in the nation for population growth. And recently the respected demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution found that population growth in core urban areas like Harris County has now fallen behind growth rates in the suburbs, the exurbs, and rural areas.

Further analysis by the Kinder Institute finds that underlying all three of these trends are two striking facts: First, the decline in population growth in metropolitan Houston is all occurring in Harris County. And second, that decline in population growth is due entirely to a striking reversal in domestic in-migration in Harris County. Natural increase (births over deaths) and international migration are holding steady, but in 2017 far more people moved out of Harris County to go to other places in the United States than moved into Harris County from other places in the United States, according to the recently released Census data.

Clearly, many of these out-migrants may simply be going to the Houston suburbs. But the population dynamics in the suburbs have not changed much in the last couple of years. And the idea that Harris County is losing domestic migrants flies in the face of Houston’s own self-image. After all, the idea that you live off of natural increase and international migration – while losing your own residents to other places – is often viewed in Houston as a California kind of thing, not a Texas kind of thing.

Click over and read on for the charts and the details. For Harris County, both natural population growth – i.e., births minus deaths – and international migration have held steady, and those numbers are enough so that even with more people moving out rather than moving in, Harris County is still growing, just more slowly than it was as recently as 2014. But natural growth is contingent on having a young population, which we have in part because of migration, and with the lunatic xenophobe in the White House right now I wouldn’t bank on these things continuing as they have, at least in the near-to-medium term. Population is power in our world, so if these trends continue then we may see Harris County lose influence relative to the big suburban counties as the city of Houston has lost influence relative to the county in the past couple of decades. If this is a trend, it’s the beginning of one, so it may still be a blip and there may be things we can do to affect it. I’d say it’s worth our time to try and figure this out.

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  1. Gary Bennett says:

    Before reaching any long term conclusions about Houston’s growth, we might need to get well clear of the oil industry slump of the last couple of years — which took an unusually long time to have an impact on in-migration this time around. By contrast the great petroleum slump that began in the early 1980s had a major impact from 1982 all the way to the end of the decade (but didn’t have an impact on Fort Worth/Dallas till about 1987 — and the S&L debacle). Of course the whole fossil fuel industry is going to be entering a long-range decline soon, & unless Houston can capture a significant portion of the alternative energy market, its long term prospects are bleak, but that’s a different story. What has so far NOT been factored in is the impact on in-migration of Harvey, since it was after the July 1, 2017, cutoff for estimates.

  2. JC says:

    Harris county slowing down might not be a bad thing. Our drainage, transportation, law enforcement, and educational systems seemed to be either strectched or overworked. All growth is not good growth. And as in dominoes all money is not good money. Also housing is getting to be out of reach to a lot of people, and houston doesn’t have the job growth people seem to think it does. But as Gary says above. We are an oil city and whether we have renewables and electricals or not, we are going to have slumps. Its a commodity (oil).