The population of Suffolk County, which includes Boston, fell by more than 5,000 over the year spanning the last half of 2021 and the first half of 2022, according to US Census data released Thursday, bringing a recent decline to more than 30,000 people since the early days of the pandemic.
As of July 1, Suffolk County, which also includes Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere, had an estimated population of 766,381, down from roughly 771,765 at the same point in 2021 — a loss of 5,384 residents.
In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Suffolk County had an estimated 797,941 residents, but by July of that year, the number had fallen to 793,271 — that decline was 4,670 residents.
In Boston, the population stood at 617,594 as of April 1, 2010 and had grown to 675,647 as of April 1, 2020, per census figures.
But by July 2021, the estimated population had dropped to 654,776. The city’s population estimates for July 2022 read as “N/A” on the census site as of Thursday afternoon.
Counties that saw their population increase last year included Bristol, which includes Fall River and New Bedford. Bristol County’s population grew to an estimated 580,068 residents as of July 1, up from 579,895 last summer according to the data.
Other counties that added residents were:
- Middlesex County, which includes Cambridge, Everett, and Newton grew very slightly, from an estimated 1,617,099 to 1,617,605 residents as of July 1.
- Norfolk County, which includes Quincy, Dedham, and Braintree had an estimated population of 725,531 in July, up from 724,692 in 2021.
- Plymouth County, which includes Brockton and Bridgewater and had an estimated 533,069 residents in July, up from 532,919 the previous year.
- Worcester County, which includes Worcester, New England’s second-largest city, had an estimated 862,927 residents, up from 862,132 in 2021.
In Massachusetts, several counties also saw population declines last year, including Dukes which had an estimated 20,868 residents as of July 2022, down from 21,109 at the same time in 2021; Essex at 806,765, down from 807,485; Franklin, which dipped slightly to 70,894 from 70,943; Hampden, which dropped to 461,041 from 462,849; and Nantucket, which decreased to 14,421 from 14,499, per the data.
Statewide, the population fell last year by about 8,000 residents, from an estimated 6.989 million to 6.981 million.
In April 2020, the state’s population was 7.029 million. Three months later, it had fallen to 6.995 million people
“We knew that we had out-migration in Massachusetts, but frankly, I was surprised at just how much we were seeing it for Suffolk County,” said Mark Melnik, the director of economic and policy research at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
Melnik said one significant factor behind residents leaving the county may be the rising cost of living and housing in Suffolk County.
”The big concern is the difficulty in affording housing, especially for low- and moderate- income folks or young people who are early in their careers and getting started,” Melnik said.
The combination of an aging population and more and more residents leaving the county, Melnik said, can create job vacancies and a declining workforce that would dampen the state’s economic growth and competitiveness.
”Suffolk County is an important part of that story because there’s a lot of economic activity and success that the state has seen over the last couple of decades,” Melnik said. “It has really been driven by knowledge-based industries that have been growing in the Greater Boston region.”
The issue has become a serious enough concern that Governor Maura Healey raised it in her inaugural address in January.
”This is the greatest state in the union,” she said at the time. “But people are leaving at some of the highest rates in the country. Giving up on the Massachusetts story.”
Healey introduced a new tax relief plan in early March to stimulate economic competitiveness and address the high cost of living.
And although keeping up with housing demand is a key factor in solving this issue, Melnik said policy makers should also provide more opportunities for people in disadvantaged communities to enter the workforce. That includes those with disabilities, those with criminal records, older workers, and families with children.
”The things that can make it hard to be engaged in the labor market, what are ways in which we can remove the barriers or lower the barriers?” Melnik said.
After seeing declines during the pandemic, some urban centers across the country saw their populations tick back up in 2022, officials said.
“The migration and growth patterns for counties [nationwide] edged closer to pre-pandemic levels this year,” Dr. Christine Hartley, a census estimates and projections official, said in a statement.
“Some of the urban counties in New York and San Francisco that saw significant domestic outmigration and population decline in 2021 had population growth in 2022,” Hartley said. “Similarly, many counties with large universities saw their populations fully rebound this year as students returned.”
Nationwide last year, the largest gaining county was Maricopa County in Arizona, which added 56,831 residents, a 1.3 percent increase from the previous year. The largest decline came in Los Angeles County in California, which lost more than 90,000 residents, although it remains the nation’s most populous county with 9.7 million people, followed by Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago and has 5.1 million residents.
“Reflecting longstanding regional population shifts, the nation’s most populous counties are increasingly located in the South and West,” the statement said.