Unacast ran an in depth study on Texas population trends, with a particular focus on the captivating city of Austin. Known for its unique blend of sushi, craft whiskey, and alt-rock, Austin stands apart from the traditional Texan stereotype. However, recent data reveals an intriguing development: while other similarly sized cities in the U.S. experienced a surge in population during the Covid pandemic, Austin has been witnessing a decline, defying the prevailing trends.
In this article, we delve into the reasons behind this extraordinary phenomenon and examine the distinct characteristics of Austin's population contraction in 2022. Among the major urban areas in Texas, Austin is the sole city to have experienced this decline, in stark contrast to the growth observed in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio. What led to this sudden reversal after years of sustained growth? What factors contributed to Austin's anomaly?
Texas cities by population growth and voting tendency
The Austin anomaly
That Austin’s population shrank in 2022 is unusual on a few levels. First of all, Austin is the only major urban area in Texas to have experienced contraction in this period: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio all grew in 2022.
Secondly, this contraction followed a period of sustained growth from as far back as our data goes through the end of 2021 and the peak of Covid. Finally, the whiplash effect in Austin, while still allowing for net Covid era gains, has been severe enough to put the Austin area into negative growth territory in 2022 and early 2023.
The question arises: What is the cause of this notable whiplash? Based on a deep-dive into the data, it seems the demography of Covid era migrants to San Antonio may have something to do with it.
One distinguishing characteristic of the typical Covid era migrant to San Antonio is their comparatively lower income for the area, i.e. people who moved to San Antonio from 2020 through 2022 earned about $12,500 or 17% less in median income than the typical area resident. That’s 17% less buying power for everything: rent, food, gas, healthcare, entertainment etc. In other words, it may be some people came here looking for more of a life, but on arrival, found they could afford comparatively less of it; certainly less than can be had in other Texas cities.
Austin is, by all measurements, a relatively expensive place to live, especially by Texas standards. Wages are lower here than in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, while the cost of living is almost uniformly higher. To illustrate this, below we compare average costs in each city to live in a one bedroom apartment in the city center, using public transportation to get around.
The net effect of the average Covid era migrant’s lower income and the higher relative cost of living in Austin may well have been a key driver of San Antonio’s whiplash effect. Certainly, a relative cost of living 20 to 50% higher than larger nearby cities is likely not helping, which becomes clear when we look at where the people who leave Austin go next.
Big city clawback
Here is another very unusual thing about Texas: the state’s three largest cities are all growing again as of 2022 (Houston +11,118 , Dallas +4,355 , San Antonio +1,699 ). We can not find that same condition in any other state as of April 2023. And what is one place all these Texas cities are today consistently drawing new migrants from? You guessed it: Austin.
Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are the top landing spots for people who leave Austin for other Texas locations. Those who leave Austin and the state entirely often head for Los Angeles, New York, Denver, Chicago, Seattle or Washington D.C. So, they’re not moving to rural areas; they are purposefully bouncing to larger, more metropolitan urban areas.
It’s also worth noting that most of the top destination points for people who left Austin in 2022 are democratic strongholds, suggesting politics may have had a role in their decision to move to, or ultimately leave the city. Perhaps politics was not a determining factor for Covid era migration trends here, but it is reasonable to conclude it was, and remains, a contributing factor.
So is Austin a negative growth city for the future?
It seems unlikely that Austin’s migration pattern will remain net negative for very long. First of all, natural compression from the cities’ geography alone denotes both regular inbound flow from nearby urban centers, and an annual crop of new workers migrating to Austin from nearby College Station.
Secondly, while net migration flow in Austin is down in 2022, people are still moving to the area. Top origination points for migrants to Austin in 2022 included all the big Texas cities and out of state metropolises mentioned above, as well as a couple of areas nearby: Killeen and Mission. These places have been Austin’s chief source of inbound migrants since at least 2019 — before, during and in the wake of Covid. It is unlikely to see the tap turning itself off.
Finally, we come back to the subject of Austin’s core demography and how that has and has not changed over the Covid era. The sociologist in me looks at it this way: Austin is a vibrant, culture-rich city with a diverse cultural lens. The average person there is younger - mid 30s - and perhaps just getting their feet under them financially after Covid caused an early disruption to their career. They moved to the city center from another city with democratic leanings and that was a factor in their decision making.
But those who arrived in the last few years may have found San Antonio different than what they imagined before moving here. It’s expensive, it’s busier than they thought it might be, and they don’t have to travel many zip codes over to encounter views about politics and culture that are well outside their own. In this modern WFH world, there are other cities and other options available that are perhaps closer to the mark.
As a result, some of the newer migrants to San Antonio have chosen to leave, and that may continue to happen, but the long term view is that the gravity of the city will continue to draw this demographic, of which there is plentiful supply. For these reasons, I think the whiplash effect in San Antonio is likely to lessen in 2023 vs. 2022, and a return to growth is on the horizon in ‘24 or ‘25.
In conclusion, the population trends in Texas, particularly the unique case of Austin, present a fascinating picture of migration patterns and their underlying factors. Austin's population decline in 2022, amidst the growth observed in other major Texas cities, raises intriguing questions about the city's appeal and its changing demographics.
While Austin's anomaly stands out as the only major urban area in Texas to experience contraction during this period, it is essential to examine the larger context. Factors such as income disparity and the relatively high cost of living in Austin compared to other Texas cities played a significant role in shaping the population whiplash effect. Covid-era migrants to San Antonio, with lower incomes, found it challenging to afford the lifestyle they desired in Austin, leading to some choosing to relocate.
However, it is crucial to recognize that Austin's intrinsic allure and gravitational pull are likely to persist. The city's vibrant culture, diverse population, and geographic proximity to neighboring urban centers ensure a steady inflow of residents. Moreover, despite the temporary decline, people continue to relocate to Austin from both within and outside of Texas, indicating its enduring appeal.
While the specific reasons behind Austin's population decline in 2022 are multifaceted, it is unlikely to be a long-term trend. The younger demographic, drawn to Austin's unique character and cultural lens, remains a key driver of its growth. As such, the population whiplash effect is expected to lessen in the coming years, with a return to growth on the horizon.
By exploring the Texas population trends and the Austin anomaly, we gain valuable insights into the complex interplay of factors influencing migration patterns. Understanding the dynamics at play helps us appreciate the distinctive nature of Austin's population shifts and provides a deeper understanding of the broader population trends within Texas.