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From Home Furnishing Business

Statistically Speaking: Big and Small America

Big and Small America is a term coined by the Census Bureau to reflect the present geographical spread of the American population. Over 50 percent of residents live in just 143 counties (Big America) with the remaining 50 percent spread out over a vast area encompassing 2,999 additional counties (Small America). The following map (Figure 1) shows the 143 highlighted most populous counties.

The migration to populous counties is in part due to more workers seeking jobs in large cities as manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. Along with greater job opportunities, the lure of warmer climates has drawn Americans to the southern and western states. The most growth has been seen in regional hub areas and coastal areas with ports. Southern and Western areas along with larger cities have also been impacted by Immigration.

As shown in Figure 2, 50 percent of the population lives in 4.6 percent of counties – roughly 161.7 million residents. These Big American counties average, 485,846 in population.  Medium sized counties average 211,321 persons and house 10.7 percent of the nation.  Very small U.S. counties totaling 2,664 represent 84.8 percent of counties and the remaining 25 percent of the population. Small counties average only 20,402 in population.

Also surprising is that over 10 percent of the population resides in just seven counties, three of which are in California (Table A). By far, Los Angeles County is the nation’s most populous with over 10 million residents in 2016. With just half the size (5.2 million), Cook County, IL has the second highest population, followed by Harris County, TX, Maricopa County, AZ, San Diego County, CA, Orange County, CA, and Miami-Dade, FL.

The rate of growth further contrasts Big America versus Small America. The U.S. population increased by over 2.2 million between 2015 and 2016, yet almost half (49.0%) of the U.S. counties lost population.  For small counties, 54.1 percent lost residents, while only 17.5 percent of big counties diminished (Table B).

For Small counties, 450 lost over 1 percent of their population between 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, only seven Big and Medium sized counties declined 1 percent or more (Table C). The big county on the list, Baltimore County, MD, lost 1.08 percent of its residents from 2015 to 2016. Ector County, TX home of the city Odessa, TX topped of the Medium counties – decreasing population by 1.39 percent.

Counties in Texas lead the way in largest percent of population growth with the top two increasing counties located within the Austin-Round Rock, TX Metropolitan Statistical Area – Williamson County (5.09 percent) and Hays County (4.19 percent). Comal County, TX added 4.40 percent more residents to the San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX market. Southern states rounded out the list of counties gaining over 4 percent of population in 2016 (Table D).

Another current key geographic characteristic worth noting has to do with the staggering population density in the Northeast, notably in the New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ MSA in five key counties.  With the exception of San Francisco County, CA, the Northeast contains the most congestion of people with Boston, MA, Philadelphia, PA and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV MSA’s all containing over 11,000 people per square mile (Table E).

Meanwhile, the vast areas of California, Nevada and Arizona make the density in their counties less than .05 percent as dense as the Northeast (Table F). For example, New York County (New York City) has almost 72,000 people per square mile living in the county, compared to 2,500 in Los Angeles County, the largest county in population in the U.S.

As the map in Figure 3 shows, fourteen states have no Big counties: Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, North Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

By comparison, there are 17 states with a majority of residents living in big counties. Massachusetts and New Jersey have the highest percent of Big counties – 50 percent and 47.6 percent respectively. California has the most big counties at 17, followed by Florida and Texas, both with 12. In contrast, states with the highest number of small counties are Texas (223) and Georgia (141), while states with the highest mid-sized (medium) counties include Florida (21), Pennsylvania (20), North Carolina (19), and California (17).


Total U.S. population grew only 0.7 percent last year, with immigration contributing about 45 percent of that growth. Although population growth was slight, 84.3 percent of states experienced increases, leaving 15.7 percent with a decrease (eight states). Table G shows the states with over 1 percent growth in 2016. Utah and Nevada topped the list with 2 percent growth. Two highly populated states, Florida and Texas continued to grow.

Population in three big northern states, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois decreased alongside less populated states like Wyoming, Vermont, and West Virginia (Table H).

Slightly less than one million people immigrated to the U.S. last year, down 3.6 percent from 2015. They represented about 45 percent of U.S. population growth. As shown in Table I, big counties were the major recipients with 74.1 percent of immigrants residing in highly populated areas.

Short of at least some manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S., the divide between Big and Small America should accelerate, with metropolitan areas continuing to spread. Along with a majority of the immigrant population settling in the south and west, Americans in general will continue to gravitate to big counties that have warmer climates, job opportunities, and desirable cost of living.

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