Dmitry Kaminsky /

Not all of us are moving west.

In general, America’s population “center” has been moving south and west over the past century or so. The map below, from the U.S. Census, shows the steady march of what’s more technically referred to as the nation’s center of population—which identifies the single geographic point that divides the nation’s total population from north to south and east to west—since the late 18th century. Understanding where the nation’s population center is and where it is heading helps us understand the big demographic shifts that are shaping our nation and its cities.

But there is not just one population center. According to a new study published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, this point actually varies pretty widely depending on what group or demographic phenomenon you’re looking at. The study, by David A. Plane from the University of Arizona and Peter A. Rogerson from SUNY, mapped the population centers for key demographic groups—gender, race, and age—and also for the key components of demographic changes like births vs. deaths and domestic vs. international migration.

The map below, from the study, shows the population centers for men and women, and for various age groups in 2013.

The midpoint for men is farther west than for women. This makes intuitive sense. Men are more likely to move for economic opportunity. But it is also likely influenced by skewed age structures—which tend to be younger and therefore slightly more male—in the West.

Now have a look at age groups. The mid-point for younger people is considerably farther west and south than their older counterparts. Young adults ages 20-34 are located farther west than slightly younger teens (15- to 19-year-olds), who are more likely to live with their parents. You can also clearly see what the study calls “‘empty nester’ and retirement migration” among those aged 60-74, whose midpoint begins to move farther south.

The next map shows the pattern for six major racial and ethnic groups: African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI), Hispanics and Latinos, and non-Hispanic whites. Each category is represented by a different shape (identified on the map’s legend). The color blue indicates the population center in 2000 and red indicates it as of 2013.

The midpoint for blacks is farthest east—roughly situated in southeastern Kentucky. The midpoint for whites is next, located somewhat north and west, around central Indiana, followed by the midpoint for Asians. What is especially interesting about this latter midpoint is that the Asian population center has moved north and east, not south and west, from southern Colorado in 2000 to northeastern Kansas by 2013. The midpoint for Hispanics is a little south, and it too shifted eastward from Texas to Oklahoma. The midpoint for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders is not surprisingly farthest west in California, but it also moved slightly eastward over the past decade or so. Still, when taken all together, these moves add up to a west and south shift.

The study also identifies the midpoints for the key components of population change, such as deaths vs. births and domestic vs. international migration. The map below shows these midpoints for 2000-2013.

The natural increase of population—the fact that there were more births than deaths from 2000-2013—has played the biggest role in shifting the U.S. population center westward, according to the study. Births alone contributed the largest longitudinal pull, moving the center toward the south. Domestic migration had a bigger effect than international migration on the overall shift in population west and south. This is because international migrants are drawn to large East Coast centers like New York, D.C., and Miami, as well as West Coast gateways like L.A.

This is more than just a fun exercise, because it shows us that different types of people are moving in different directions. The nation as a whole is not simply moving monolithically south and west. Ultimately, the study forecasts that big changes are ahead and that the nation’s overall population center—and the different midpoints for different types of Americans—are likely to undergo substantial changes as baby boomers become empty-nesters, millennials form families and raise kids, and the nation as a whole becomes increasingly diversified along racial and ethnic lines.

Top image: Dmitry Kaminsky /

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: bicyclists in Paris during a transit strike in December.

    Paris Mayor: It's Time for a '15-Minute City'

    In her re-election campaign, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says that every Paris resident should be able to meet their essential needs within a short walk or bike ride.

  2. a map comparing the sizes of several cities

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

  3. photo: a wallet full of Yen bills.

    Japan’s Lost-and-Found System Is Insanely Good

    If you misplace your phone or wallet in Tokyo, chances are very good that you’ll get it back. Here’s why.

  4. Charts

    The Evolution of Urban Planning in 10 Diagrams

    A new exhibit from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association showcases the simple visualizations of complex ideas that have changed how we live.

  5. A child plays in Santiago, Chile.

    How to Design Cities for Children

    A billion kids are now growing up in urban areas. But not all cities are planned with their needs in mind.