Philadelphia Lost More Than 50,000 Residents During the Pandemic. Now What?

We all rejoiced when the city made big population gains over the two previous census cycles — Philly was growing again! We’ve since lost most of that gain, and how we respond could make or break the city’s future.

Philadelphia’s population decreased by over 50,000. Now what? / Photo-illustration by Leticia R. Albano

Since the dawn of the current millennium, city boosters have celebrated the reversal of Philadelphia’s five-decade-long population slide. The 2010 census showed the city had gained 8,456 residents, and the pace picked up in the 2020 tabulation, which added 77,791 to the 2010 figure. These were heady times for a city that had, like many Northern industrial cities since the 1950s, seen its population tick steadily down. Cities were having a rebirth in the public imagination, and nothing cemented this more than the fact that more people were choosing to live in them.

But in the past few years, the growth curve has reversed. Following in the path of its East Coast peers, Philadelphia since 2020 has lost more than 53,000 residents, according to Census Bureau estimates. Which means that a pretty hefty chunk of the 86,000-plus residents we’d gained since 2000 decamped in the past four years.

Given that every other large city in the Northeast, not to mention seven of the nation’s 10 largest cities, also lost population since 2020, this is certainly not the time for wailing and gnashing of teeth over how awful our city must be. As far as I can tell, it’s no worse off than the other cities that have lost residents since 2020, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Boston.

The newest census data show that Washington and Boston have regained some of the people they lost in 2020 and 2021, and the trendlines are improving in all the rest of these cities. Still, it may be somewhat illuminating to ask: What happened to those 53,000 Philadelphians? Where did they go? Why did they leave? And what, if anything, can we do to get them back?

To understand what happened to all those former Philadelphians, first we need to break down the three main drivers of population change.

The first is what’s known as “natural increase,” or “natural decrease.” This is the difference between the number of people born in a place and the number who die there in a given period. In that department, Philadelphia has done all right, especially compared to the rest of Pennsylvania.

“On the positive side, Philadelphia County still has more births than deaths,” says Emilio Parrado, professor of sociology and director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “We had 10,000 more births than deaths” over the three years since 2020. By contrast, while the city got younger, Pennsylvania got older: According to Parrado, 67,000 more people died than were born statewide since 2020.

The second driver of population change is domestic migration — the flow of people already living in the United States from one location to another. Most of the nation’s largest cities outside the Sunbelt have posted net domestic out-migration since 2020, and Philadelphia is no exception: “We lost 80,000 people due to migration out of the county,” says Parrado.

In most of our older large cities, migration from abroad, the third driver, has more than made up for this net domestic loss. That was the case for Philadelphia prior to 2020; in the 2000s, 40,218 immigrants moved into the city, followed by another 48,458 in the 2010s. Afterward, however, Philly failed to make up the difference: “We only gained 17,000 international migrants” since 2020, says Parrado.

What’s behind these shifts? There are several factors, of course, but the biggest one since 2020 happened in the first year of the decade: the COVID pandemic. More than 27,500 of those 53,000 residents who have left since 2020 did so from 2020 to 2021 — more than half of the total loss.

COVID, Parrado says, threw a monkey wrench into the urban-population conveyor belt by reducing the number of immigrants coming from abroad while the net domestic outflow continued to grow: “There’s been a tendency for people to move away from states like Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois.” Indeed, two of those three states — Pennsylvania and New York — lost population at the state level over these past three years.

Two factors, Parrado notes, heavily influence migration patterns: employment and retirement. And both of those are driving Northeasterners: “People are moving south,” to states like Texas and Florida. (Two of the Texas cities in the top 10 — Houston and San Antonio — have gained residents since 2020.) “People follow jobs, so Texas is growing dramatically” because of employment growth; the business climate in most Sunbelt states is more favorable than Pennsylvania’s. “And people follow retirement.” Even though Pennsylvania has recently been ranked one of the top states in the country for retirement (surprise!), Pennsylvanians, including Philadelphians, tend to flee to warmer climes when they’re ready to retire, thus helping swell Florida’s population.

“It used to be that all of this was compensated for by immigrants,” Parrado continues. “But COVID, immigration laws and so forth reduced immigration. It might pick up again in the future, but we’re not seeing that compensating effect from immigration now. The decline of immigration and the persecution of immigrants in some states really affects cities, because historically, cities have been the place of receiving immigrants.”

And anyone who has been around since the 1990s can point to the marks immigrants have made here. From Mexicans who have revitalized parts of the Italian Market to Southeast Asians who have settled near it and opened up businesses along Washington Avenue to Chinese immigrants who have made Mayfair a gateway neighborhood and South Americans who have brought the tropics to other parts of the Northeast, immigrants have made this city more cosmopolitan and exciting. They’ve also brought economic vitality to neighborhoods where it was flagging.

Parrado suggests that making this city a place of opportunity for immigrants could once again boost the overall population. “Philadelphia was sort of late in participating in the growth of the city because of immigration,” he says. After the Depression and World War II, immigration to this city fell sharply and didn’t pick up steam again until the 2000s — around the time the Welcoming Center, originally the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, opened here in 2003. “And if the city goes back to creating jobs” — that is, makes it easier for new businesses to start and grow — “you’re going to see the city attracting more immigrants.”

The data seem to suggest that people are having kids in the city, because there are more births than deaths. But at some point, they leave the city, most likely when the kids start going to school” — Emilio Parrado, director of Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania

While Philadelphians leaving the state for warmer weather or better job opportunities contribute to the population loss, so does another form of domestic migration: movement within the metropolitan region. Since 2020, two of the five Southeastern Pennsylvania counties — Chester and Montgomery — have gained residents, while Bucks and Delaware have lost only small amounts.

One of the biggest reasons for the intra-regional moves remains education.

“The data seem to suggest that people are having kids in the city, because there are more births than deaths,” says Parrado, setting up a point so common that it’s practically cliché. “But at some point, they leave the city, most likely when the kids start going to school” — or when they’re about ready to go, at age three or four. Another reason behind the moves: “You get more space in the suburbs than in the city.” That drive for breathing room became more urgent with the COVID pandemic, an event that triggered the reversal of the population growth curve.

Realtors and residents I spoke with for this story point to similar reasons when asked why city residents head for the suburbs. But in some cases, other factors come into play.

One former resident who wished to remain anonymous — a parent of young children who moved from Fishtown to South Jersey — says he knows “dozens” of others who did as he did before mortgage rates jumped sharply upward after the pandemic: “For people with kids, the city kept schools closed for far, far too long. Education suffered tremendously. And kids at home all day in smaller homes made it even harder to live.” The riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death, he adds, only made matters worse: “Add to that the high tax burden, public transit imploding, and the general filth of the city, and the city turned into a whole lot of not fun very quickly.”

“A lot of young buyers are moving because their kids are becoming of school age and they want to get out of the city,” says Robin Gordon, leader of the Robin Gordon Team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach Realtors — one of the top-selling teams of agents in the Philadelphia region, according to Bright MLS data. She should know, since her prime territory is the Main Line, whose schools enjoy much better reputations than those in Philly. But, she says, schooling isn’t the only reason people are shunning the city.

“I think there’s been a big migration out of the city since COVID because there’s a lot more crime, and retail that’s closed down,” she says. “Whereas a lot of empty nesters were considering selling their big houses and moving into town, I’m finding they don’t want to move into town now. They don’t want to deal with the crime, even though the city has the culture and the walkability and all that. Not all of them, but there are many that are choosing not to be in the city anymore. I actually had a client who sold in Gladwyne, moved to the city, and rented there to see if they liked it. Then COVID hit, and they said, ‘We’re outta here’ and moved back to Wayne.” (After a spike in 2020, crime has fallen in the city, but like the pandemic itself, the perception of danger clearly lingers.)

Cherise Wynne, principal agent of the Wynne Group at Compass Real Estate, hooked me up with one city resident who decided she’d get more for her money in the suburbs. Shalonda Cooke, an investigator with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, is moving from her rowhouse in Southwest Philadelphia’s International City to a twin in Upper Darby.

“Our property taxes are almost $4,000” — and that’s with the homestead exemption, she says. “And I don’t see what kind of amenities come with that. It’s a dangerous city. The streets are dirty. They don’t pick up the trash properly. I could spend the same amount of money [in taxes] and move to Delaware County, where I’d feel more comfortable with my son playing outside.”

Not everyone is as anxious to leave as Cooke is, however. David Feldman, an agent with Compass, says that he has handled some “typical young-family-with-preschooler moves to Lower Merion” and that he also helped a woman from an old Germantown family move to new digs in Vermont, where her husband grew up and she attended college. But he says he has personally handled more moves into the city from the suburbs or out-of-state than out of the city. “But for what it’s worth,” he adds, “the most common deal I’ve had the past two years was a move within Philadelphia.”

These recent trends raise two questions: Are there things Philadelphia can do to bring people back into the city? And if there aren’t — or if there are and they don’t work — are we prepared to manage decline?

As far as keeping people in the city, Parrado says, clearly, schools matter: “People who move into the city tend to be young professionals. And at some point, when it comes to schools, they’re not rich enough to pay for private school. So you need good public schools. And some things have been getting better with the public schools in the city, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Changes in the economics of retirement may also work to keep Philadelphians around longer, he says: “Pennsylvania does not tax Social Security” or other retirement income — a major reason the state ranks so highly on best-places-to-retire lists. “And Florida is actually getting expensive, because of flood insurance and rising property taxes. But we’re still seeing that people are moving to Florida and Arizona. So if you look at the financial side, Pennsylvania is a good place to retire, but I’m not sure that’s the only criterion people use when it comes to making retirement decisions.”

Parrado does caution that actions the city might take to benefit one group could harm another: “The City of Philadelphia has the city [wage] tax, which makes it very expensive.”

Tax cuts, he adds, “may benefit the older people, but then, you make things worse because there are these trade-offs that are so difficult for politicians to deal with.” Every tax cut, in essence, comes with a question: What service has to go?

If people don’t value city life, they might easily leave, since they can work anywhere.” — Parrado

Then there’s the rise of home-based work. “With remote work, we just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Parrado notes. “That’s also going to be a challenge for cities to keep their population, because if people don’t value city life, they might easily leave, since they can work anywhere.”

And public safety, and the perceptions of same, can’t be ignored. “It can be exaggerated, but you have these very powerful images of the city being dangerous,” says Parrado. “Crime in the city affects all districts; even if it’s not real, it’s perceived.” Recent events like the stabbing of a one-year-old boy by an allegedly mentally disturbed woman near Rittenhouse Square contribute to those perceptions of danger.

But, Parrado suggests, we may all want to get used to the idea of Philadelphia as a city with a more transient population, one that ebbs and flows as people’s life stages and tastes change. “There’s literature that highlights that cities are becoming entertainment places,” he says. “So instead of putting so much emphasis on getting people to move into the city” for the long run, “people are maybe going to have to get used to people coming into and out of the city” — moving in, then out, then back in.

“There’s nothing wrong,” he adds, “with getting young professionals to move to the city, and then, when they have kids, they leave. If you keep getting young professionals coming into the city, then you have a population dynamic of people coming in and leaving, coming in and leaving.” Moreover, he says, most of the transient population will rent rather than own their homes.

The housing being built now in Center City and some other neighborhoods aligns with the dynamic Parrado describes. The new rental apartment buildings hold great appeal for young professionals who want to be near restaurants, nightclubs, and other city amenities. Then, when they’re ready to form families, they’ll head for places where they can find yards and schools they perceive as better.

Because of the way the Philadelphia region has developed over the decades, most of those places will lie beyond the city limits. But such places also exist within the city. And if City Hall works to get crime back under control and the schools up to snuff (with help from the Commonwealth), there’s a chance more of those young professionals will stick around when the kids reach school age.

Gordon notes that some people do enjoy those urban amenities. A client of hers, she says, recently moved from Rittenhouse Square to Fairmount and loves its vibe and the dining scene. But others, who hear stories like the one about the infant stabbed off Rittenhouse Square, become jittery about using those same amenities.

Still, she says, the administration of Mayor Cherelle Parker seems to have its priorities in order when it comes to policies that might stanch the city’s population drain, like cutting bureaucratic red tape to make it easier to start a business and cleaning up the Kensington drug bazaar. “They’re hoping it’s going to change for the better,” Gordon says of the new regime in City Hall. “We all have to hope that.”

And maybe, if Mayor Parker and other optimists turn out to be justified, we might see our population curve head back upward after a hiccup.


Published as “The Missing 53,000” in the June 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.