Boston's population peaked in 1950 at roughly 800,000 and went down to about 560,000 by 1980. Several factors played into this decline, but at different times. First, immigration to the United States was almost completely cut off in 1924, which meant Boston's population grew only 4% between 1920 and 1930 (to put this in context, we have to go back 1780-1790 to find a lower % population growth for a decade--population grew 12% between 1910 and 1920, and 20% the decade before that) and population declined from 1930 to 1940 as new immigrants failed to replace those moving out of neighborhoods like Boston's North and West Ends. WWII obscured the effect of the immigration limits on Boston's population. The war effort brought an influx of people to Boston and a net population gain between 1940 and 1950, but the departure of these individuals in the 1950s, combined with urban renewal displacement and the suburban building boom, caused Boston's population to decline 13% between 1950 and 1960. White flight continued the decline in the 1960s and 1970s but Boston's population grew again between 1980 and 2000.
Why the Decline?
So what's causing the decline now? Decreased employment opportunities is my guess. People will tolerate high housing prices as long as the economic benefit of working in Boston makes the tradeoff worthwhile. I believe young people and and recent immigrants are leaving, while new immigrants are avoiding Boston altogether. We might well be repeating an earlier scenario in which recent immigrants to Boston are moving on to other locations, but aren't being
replaced by new immigrants. A technical note: I'm using the word immigrant to refer to those comgin from outside the country. I'm not sure how exactly how to refer to those who have moved from within the United States--migrants?
There has always been a small but significant population of temporary residents, those who come to Boston to work, save or send money home, and then depart. It happened with single Italian males in the 1890s and 1900s and it is happening today with workers from Latin America and other places. Boston as a magnet only works if jobs are available.
Anecdotal evidence from my own neighborhood shows that many of those who have left were long time home owners of all races who sold their houses (and made substantial capital gains) and have retired or just moved South. The households replacing them have been smaller, younger, gayer.
John Keith gives his thoughts here.
Chris Cagle runs some numbers which support the argument that it high housing prices are causing people to leave along with the departure of immigrants.
internet128.com says that it is a continuation of a trend from the 1990s: as immigrants move in, natives move out I'm not sure I agree with this analysis of the numbers: I may be missing something (and will stand happily corrected) but internet128.com seems to view any non-white Boston resident as an immigrant. A longer post can be read here.
We need to remember that all the census does is catch a snapshot of a fluid population. For example, even though Boston's population declined between 1930 and 1940 according to the Federal census, I have research which shows it actually went up in Boston between 1930 and 1935 as households contracted because of the Depression--children moved back in with parents or parents in with children to save money. The ten year period means that many smaller ups and downs are missed, and the population decline noticed right now may just as well be corrected in the next four years.