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Government, Politics & Issues

2020 Census Shows More Diverse St. Louis Region — Creating Challenges And Opportunities

The view of the St. Louis arch from Illinois in June 2019. Between 2010 and 2020 the entire metropolitan region grew more diverse led by Asian, Hispanic and multiracial populations.
File Photo / Mary Delach Leonard
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St. Louis Public Radio
The view of the St. Louis Arch from Illinois in June 2019. Between 2010 and 2020, the entire metropolitan region grew more diverse, led by Asian, Hispanic and multiracial populations.

The first detailed results from the 2020 census reveal the St. Louis metropolitan area grew more diverse over the past 10 years, with Asian, Hispanic and multiracial populations expanding in nearly every part of the 14-county region defined by the Census Bureau.

The numbers also illuminate some of the challenges local leaders must tackle to attract and retain more St. Louisans in the next decade.

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Between 2010 and 2020, the St. Louis region grew by 1.2% — one of the slowest rates for a top metropolitan area — topping 2.8 million people.

“All things being equal, we should have grown more than 1.2% just on births alone,” said Ness Sandoval, who researches demography and sociology at St. Louis University. “There should be some concern that St. Louis is not growing as fast as it should grow.”

The data indicate people either moved around the region or left it entirely in the past decade, he said.

St. Charles and Jefferson counties continued growing, while St. Louis, St. Louis County and counties in the Metro East struggled to hold onto their residents. Most wound up shrinking.

“A lot of the changes we’re seeing in the region is internal migration,” Sandoval said. “A fair amount of that growth in St. Charles County was probably people leaving St. Louis County.”

Sandoval chafes at how leaders in St. Louis and St. Louis County characterized population trends in the past decade. The city’s population hovering above 300,000 is no cause for celebration, he said.

“When I moved here in 2008 and we were getting ready for the 2010 census, I remember people saying, ‘As long as we don’t go under 310,000, we’re gonna be good,’” Sandoval said. “That bar keeps going lower and lower each time.”

Leaders in the city, county and region as a whole need to focus on transforming St. Louis’ image to attract more young people, he said.

“They have to imagine St. Louis as a place to call home,” Sandoval said.

Black residents moving out of St. Louis

The results reinforce a trend Sandoval spotted in the American Community Survey — Black residents leaving St. Louis for the county or the region entirely. In St. Louis, 27,396 Black residents left in the past decade while St. Louis County picked up 13,367 and St. Charles County gained 5,845.

Families make up the majority of the Black people who are moving from the city, said Charli Cooksey, the CEO of WEPOWER, a community organization in St. Louis focused on building political and economic power.

Charli Cooksey (left), founder and CEO of WEPOWER, listens to entrepreneurs Reina Stovall (right) and Dr. Brittany Conners (middle) during one of Elevate/Elevar's focus group meetings on March 13, 2019.
WEPOWER
Charli Cooksey (left), founder and CEO of WEPOWER, listens to entrepreneurs Reina Stovall (right) and Brittany Conners (middle) during one of Elevate/Elevar's focus group meetings in March 2019. Cooksey believes St. Louis leaders need to overhaul the early childhood and K-12 education systems for the city to retain Black families.

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“Our families are making a tough but necessary choice, because they’re not accessing quality early childhood or K-12 education experiences in the city,” she said. “So they have to pursue that elsewhere.”

The numbers validate Cooksey’s belief that St. Louis leaders need to overhaul early childhood and K-12 education in the city and provide more support for Black families, she said.

“There needs to be a family wellbeing strategy,” Cooksey said. “That needs to include minimum wage and solutions that consider access to equitable health care.”

The residents who are exiting largely come from north St. Louis, where Black families have lived for generations, she said. The decision for those residents to move is especially significant, Cooksey added.

“There’s something special about St. Louis city,” she said. “The history and all the character and resilience is a reason to be proud of it, but it’s also the reason why it makes it so hard to stay. Our resilience has meant that we’re withstanding the strength of systems that continue to do harm.”

Growth in Asian, Hispanic and multiracial communities

The 2020 headcount results also show robust increases in Asian, Hispanic and multiracial people across the metro region. Those groups combined now account for more than 10% of the population in St. Louis and St. Louis, St. Charles and St. Clair counties.

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For leaders in these communities, the new numbers are finally starting to reflect a reality they experience every day.

“I knew when we had data from 2010, the Hispanic community was undercounted,” said Tony Maldonado, chairman of the Hispanic Leaders Group in St. Louis.

Missouri Asian American Youth Foundation Founder Caroline Fan felt the same way when she moved to the St. Louis area seven years ago. Her organization develops Asian American and Pacific Islander youth leaders across the state.

“Even in 2014, I thought the population was larger than what was captured by the census in 2010,” she said.

In many analyses, the census data is only listed in topline groupings of “Asian” or “Hispanic/Latino.” The bureau will release more data to fill in these gaps, with the first set arriving in September, Sandoval said.

“We’re going to get much more detailed data that will allow us to look at the characteristics of the Latino and Hispanic population and what’s driving that growth,” he said.

Still, these topline terms don’t capture the full depth of either community, Fan said.

“There’s a danger where you lump everyone together and don’t disaggregate the data,” she said. “It only presents a very flat picture, it’s not a 3D or nuanced picture. There are needs that are not being captured and not being addressed.”

Asian and Hispanic communities are almost always afterthoughts in decisions by local governments, if they’re even considered at all, Fan and Maldonado said.

Both population groups are poised to continue growing and will need more support from all aspects of local governments, not just elected officials.

“Everything here that serves the Hispanic community, if you dig deeper, it’s been a Hispanic leader that has been pushing for the service, working for the service,” Maldonado said.

He points to Casa de Salud, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and his organization as examples.

“We set out for those initiatives to serve our own population,” Maldonado said.

Language barriers

Language access is a critical concern for Hispanic and Asian populations, with the coronavirus serving as a prime example. Many local health departments asked members of these communities to volunteer their time to translate critical information.

“We welcome the community engagement piece,” said Sal Valadez, a diversity outreach and marketing representative for the Missouri and Kansas Laborers District Council. “We should also not be responsible for the burden of having to react to a situation when the resources and understanding of the communities should have been in place.”

Valadez said health departments didn’t have strong connections with Hispanic and Latino communities before the pandemic. He said those relationships are stronger now.

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From left, Mojda Siddiqui, Chau Nguyen and Caroline Fan register voters during an event with the Missouri Asian American Youth Foundation in 2020. Fan and Nguyen say language access is a key issue in Asian communities in St. Louis.

This scenario plays out regularly in the Asian community too, Fan said. Her colleague at the youth foundation, Chau Nguyen, works full time as a financial representative but also helps with government benefit applications in her free time.

She mainly helps older Vietnamese residents apply for Social Security, Medicare or other health care programs, she said.

“Our community, they actually don’t understand how the government benefits work for them because of the language barrier,” Nguyen said.

The people she helps don't feel comfortable with representatives from agencies who don’t speak their language, she said.

To Fan, it’s unfair that members of her community have to be the ones to provide these kinds of resources and services.

“If St. Louis really wants to be a 21st-century city, we need language access,” she said. “That needs to be written into our DNA.”

This specific challenge and many others for local leaders are reflected in the census data, but Sandoval adds that the region and state do have stable populations.

“We’re not doomed. This is not our fate. We can change,” he said, emphasizing that the overwhelming amount of growth came from minorities. “If the state wants to increase and the city wants to increase, it’s going to increase by minorities.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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