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New census numbers show Buffalo Niagara population loss

Erie County is losing population – but that’s happening across the state.

More people are moving out than moving in here, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The 2016 estimate reverses a growth trend in Erie County and in New York State, where population dropped for the first time in a decade.

“People are moving away from the state,” said Peter Borsella, a demographer with the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Branch. “Every single county in New York, except for three, had net out-domestic migration.”

Erie County lost residents after two years of growth and one year of negligible change.

The county's population fell to 921,046, the lowest level since 2012.


The reversal comes as a disappointment, given the county's estimated growth of more than 4,000 people in 2013 and 2014. Much of the county increase was attributed to the influx of refugees to Buffalo, which is considered a refugee resettlement city.

"That was kind of driving the population growth in Erie County between 2010 and 2014," Borsella said. "In the last couple of years, that international migration has remained stable but … people are moving out of the area and elsewhere in the country."

Neighboring communities, like the Rochester region, face a similar trend, he said.

In 2015, the county's population declined by only 236 people.

But the county lost an estimated 1,911 people in 2016.

Erie County's population is higher than it was five years ago, but the trend line does not appear promising, particularly if federal government policy changes diminish immigration numbers.

Niagara County's population, meanwhile, continues to fall at a steady but steeper rate. The Census Bureau estimated its population for last year to be 211,758, a decline of 764 people.

The metropolitan statistical area, including Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls, shows greater population losses since the growth leveled off in 2014. The Buffalo metro area still ranks among the top 50 metropolitan areas nationwide – barely. It ranks 50th. More troubling is that the metro area had the 10th biggest numerical decline in population in the nation.

Since 2010, the metro region has lost 2,813 people despite a major influx of 21,291 international immigrants over that period, census data shows.

Sharon Ana Entress, associate director for research at the UB Regional Institute, said a labor study produced by the institute earlier this year suggests that wages and underemployment may be partially to blame for the exodus of residents.

"Underemployment here is very high," Entress said. "It's about four times more prevalent than unemployment. Perhaps these folks are moving out of the region for job opportunities that are more in line with the skills, education and experience that they are offering."

The local population decline reflects a broader, downward trend across New York State. After a decade-long stretch of population gains, the state saw its first decline in population since 2006. Borsella said New York's population contraction isn't a surprise, given the slowing growth rate in recent years.

"It was either going to happen this year or next year," Borsella said. "The clues have been there for a few years now."

The statewide loss is reflected to differing degrees at the county level. Three quarters of the state's counties had flat or diminishing numbers of residents last year. Generally, rural counties had the largest percentage decreases in population. Rural counties like Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties had declines of 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively, over the past five years.

Among counties with major city hubs, Onondaga County had the biggest percentage drop. It lost an estimated 2,081 people, or .44 percent of its population. Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, has a population of 466,194, according to the Census Bureau estimate.

Among metropolitan areas, the Syracuse region suffered the sixth worst numerical population loss in the country. The Watertown metro area ranked seventh in terms of raw numbers, but ranked second nationwide in terms of the percentage of population lost – 2.8 percent.

Few counties saw a change in their statewide population rankings. Erie County remains the eighth largest county in the state, and the largest county in upstate New York.

Nationally, the U.S. population grew at a sluggish rate of .7 percent, according to the Census Bureau. New York remains the fourth most populous state in the nation, but New York State is one of only three states with population losses after a long period of growth. Pennsylvania and Wyoming also lost residents, Borsella said.

States in the South and West have benefited from overall population losses in the Northeast and Midwest, Borsella said.

"A lot of the growth we're seeing are in places like Utah or Nevada or Florida or Washington," he said.

Jay Walker, a Niagara University economics professor, said that trend is not new.

"The outmigration of citizens is likely part of what has been a demographic trend of recent years – away from what could be thought of as the 'rust belt' or New England toward states with a more favorable tax climate, greater ease of doing business, and lower cost of living," he said. "Over time, I would prefer to see New York State being more competitive with some of the state policies you see in states that have attracted population over time."

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