Data show that families with children are fleeing the Twin Cities

Last year, I wrote about how Minneapolis and St. Paul lost residents in 2021. Census Bureau data show that Minneapolis lost 6,049 residents from 2020 to 2021 and St. Paul lost 3,980. As Figure 1 shows, the numbers for 2021 to 2022 show that while Minneapolis saw a slight increase in population — 461 residents — St. Paul’s population fell again, by 3,974.

Figure 1: Population change

Source: Census Bureau

When I mentioned this in 2022, one response I got was that the Metropolitan Council actually had the population increasing for 2020 to 2021, so we ought not to worry. This is no longer true, leading the Star Tribune to ask: “Is this the end of the Minneapolis and St. Paul population boom?

The 2020 census found Minneapolis had a population of about 430,000 and St. Paul a population of about 312,000, but since then, new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate both cities may have lost population. Estimates from the Metropolitan Council paint a slightly different picture.

The census estimates say Minneapolis lost about 1% of its population — about 5,500 people — while the Met Council estimates show the city gaining about the same amount.

Both data sets show St. Paul’s population declining, but the census estimates a decline of 3% — nearly 8,000 people — while the Met Council’s estimated decline is minimal, at less than 1%.

Perhaps different estimates come from different methodologies?

The Met Council, for instance, relies heavily on housing stock and building permit data, as well as estimates of vacancy rates and the average household size. Changes in the household size, in particular, can be slow to catch up to fast-moving trends because they’re based on five-year averages.

On the other hand, the census relies on birth, death and migration patterns reflected by tax returns, which officials say can be harder to pin down at a local level.

So we have an apparent conundrum: “New housing continues to go up,” which the Met Council records, “yet it appears that [population] growth in the Twin Cities has at least slowed, and could even be heading back into decline,” as captured by the Census Bureau.

Fortunately, these numbers are not hard to reconcile:

This comes as no surprise to demographers monitoring the two largest generations, the millennials and the baby boomers. The former are having fewer children than previous generations; the latter are reaching retirement and the age where mortality rates increase. 

Because of the abundance of young professionals and empty nesters who need housing, most of those apartments cater to singles and couples.

“We have found that our residents seek the one-bedroom or alcove units, both for the price point and other efficiencies,” said Jamie Korzan, vice president of investor relations at Oppidan, the developer of the Pillars at Prospect Park.

This tallies with the data showing that children are increasingly rare in the Twin Cities:

The population of children between the ages of 7 and 17 living in both cities has dropped by more than 6% since before the pandemic, according to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Minnesota Department of Education. Minneapolis and St. Paul, along with two inner suburban districts, were the only ones in the metro to see declines of that size.

Compared with just two years prior, the number of family households in Minneapolis— defined as people who are related by blood, marriage or adoption — dropped by 5,000, according to the American Community Survey. That would be considered mostly stable in this large city. But at the same time, the share of non-family households, which mainly consists of people living alone, now makes up nearly 60% of households in the city, up from about 56% in 2015.

This makes sense of another recent story in the Twin Cities, the looming insolvency of the Minneapolis school district. The Minnesota Reformer reports that “The district was built to serve about 40,000 students, but currently enrolls about 28,000.” It goes on:

Families with children are leaving the city, and increasing enrollment is not a “viable strategy” to solving the district’s budget woes, according to the MPS budget forecast.

The district had a 17% decline in student enrollment between 2017 and 2022 and is expected to drop to about 23,000 students by 2027.

Because state funding is tied to enrollment, the district is losing state money when it needs it most. 

The report cites as possible reasons for enrollment decline the police murder of George Floyd and ensuing civil unrest; the pandemic lockdown and a 14-day teacher strike last year. 

Unmentioned in the report: Mediocre performance, at best. Only 33% of MSP students met 2022 standards in math; 42% in reading; and 33% in science, according to a state report card.

The increasingly poor standard of urban schools, lockdowns, and crime, are not the only factors driving families with children out of the cities. The Strib notes that:

Staff from both Minneapolis and St. Paul pointed to policy work like their efforts to eliminate single-family zoning, a move aiming to increase the variety of housing choices and density — one of the paths to growth in cities that are fully developed.

While knocking down four three bedroom houses and building a hundred apartments on the site might allow you to pack in more childless millennials and retirees, it isn’t a very appealing prospect for most parents. The Strib notes that:

Both the census and the Met Council data show that though population growth has slowed for the seven-county metro region as a whole, the gains happening were largely concentrated in farther out suburbs between 2020 and 2022

The drive for “density” in urban planning works better for some lifestyles than others. For families with children, the suburban life still seems to be the dream.