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St. Louis region falls behind Charlotte and Orlando in latest census estimates

The Gateway Arch and St. Louis skyline is seen from a C-21
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Gateway Arch and St. Louis skyline are seen from a C-21 jet in October 2022 while flying over the Mississippi River.

The St. Louis region has dropped from being the 21st-largest U.S. metropolitan area to the 23rd, as both Charlotte and Orlando surpassed it in the year ending July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data released Thursday, the St. Louis area lost about 3,250 residents in the same year. Data shows that in 2023 there were 2,796,999 people living in the region. In 2020, there were 2,819,212.

There is a demographic storm brewing, because the data shows from 2022 to 2023, the region saw more deaths than births, said Ness Sandoval, a St. Louis University sociology professor and demographer.

“The counties in Illinois are [seeing] the beginning of a permanent demographic winter, whereas the Missouri counties are in what we call a COVID demographic winter, which is meant to be temporary,” he said.

In just one year, the Census Bureau agency saw 1,517 more deaths than births.

Sandoval said the baby boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — are beginning to die in large numbers, and not enough babies are being born to offset the increase in deaths.

“Our window of time to turn this around is going to be very short,” he said. “Otherwise, we're going to become like Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh in a permanent demographic winter, where more people are dying than being born.”

In order for the region to see a significant population growth, it must grow through domestic migration, but census estimates show a negative migration for the area. However, data does show more international people are moving into the region. About 3,800 people migrated to St. Louis from international cities. That's still miniscule, compared to Charlotte, North Carolina, which gained about 50,500 total residents and brought its population to 2,805,115, and Orlando, Florida, which added nearly 55,000 total residents, bringing its population to 2,817,933. Sandoval said Austin, Texas, could surpass the St. Louis area in population in the near future.

“New data is fairly positive for the region … it's still a small number, when you compare it to like Miami and Houston and Dallas, but at least that number is positive,” he said. “If that number was negative, then these numbers would be a lot worse for each of the counties and for the region.

“You have to attract all types of residents to the city and to the region — Americans, immigrants and people who just want to live the American dream.”

Many residents, especially Black St. Louisans, are leaving the region for better jobs, a safer environment, affordable homes and better schools for their children. Sandoval said decades of racial discrimination created the decline in Black population.

“Cities like Charlotte, Houston, Dallas and Orlando, do not have the type of concentrated disadvantage that St. Louis has,” he said. “If you're thinking about raising your child in a racially integrated neighborhood, in a neighborhood where it has access to opportunity, those neighborhoods are fairly easy to find in those other metropolitan regions.”

St. Louis County also lost residents as of July 1. According to census data, it lost 3,732 people, and the population is now smaller than it was in 1990, when it had more than 993,500 residents.

However, not all of the region’s counties saw a loss of residents. Thousands of people moved to St. Charles, Jefferson, Lincoln and Warren counties.

Despite the increase in specific county populations, Sandoval said county leaders should be concerned, because it is now smaller than it was nearly 35 years ago.

“I actually think that this is a failure of leadership and policy. It is the most important county in the state and in the region, when you look at the economic activity in the county,” Sandoval said.

He said for St. Louis County to experience mass growth in population, there has to be a net positive number of migration from outside Missouri. St. Louis will continue to be challenged with the public’s perception on crime and education and marketing the region as a family-friendly area could help slow the amount of population loss.

“There’s a lot of good things happening in the region — with Greater St. Louis Inc. and St. Louis Made — a lot of initiatives to try to grow the region and make it more sustainable,” Sandoval said. “The fruit of their labor may pay off in five years.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.