In March, I reported on new census data showing King County’s population fell by roughly 20,000 in 2021 — the first decline in nearly 50 years.
On Thursday, the Census Bureau released new data for U.S. counties on race and ethnicity that gives some more context to the population drop. In a nutshell, King County shrank primarily because of a decline in the number of white people.
Even so, white people remained the majority in King County, making up 56.1% of the population in 2021 — down from 56.9% in 2020.
From July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021, the white, non-Hispanic population of the county fell by nearly 31,000 to about 1.26 million. That is a decline of 2.4%, the largest change of any racial or ethnic group last year.
Among the 25 largest U.S. counties, King was one of just five where white people were the majority in 2021. The others were in the metro areas of Boston (Middlesex County), Washington, D.C. (Montgomery County, Maryland), and Phoenix (Maricopa County) and on Long Island, New York (Suffolk County).
It should be noted that the Census Bureau categorizes Middle Eastern and North African people as white, even though many people from these ethnic backgrounds do not identify as such. There were plans to include a Middle Eastern/North African checkbox on the 2020 Census, but they were dropped by the Trump administration.
After calls for more accurate categories for how people identify themselves, the federal government is taking preliminary steps toward revising racial and ethnic classifications. Changes could appear on the 2030 Census.
Nationally, the white population also fell last year, though it was a drop of less than 1%. The white population is declining, in part, because it is older than any other group. Nationally, the median age for white people was about 44 in 2020, by far the oldest of any race or ethnic group; for King County, the median age for white people was 42. An older demographic group can shrink because it is more likely to have higher rates of death and lower rates of birth than younger groups.
White people, along with Native American people, also have a relatively high rate of “deaths of despair” — those from drug overdoses, alcohol and suicide.
The data for King County doesn’t give us a racial breakdown for migration — the number of people who moved into the county and the number who moved away. But it could account for much of the decline in the white population.
White people were not the only population to decline in King County last year. The Native American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander populations also fell, but by far smaller amounts. The Native American population of the county fell by around 150, a 1.1% decline, and the Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander population fell by around 50, a .2% decline.
All of King County’s other racial/ethnic groups populations increased. The biggest growth by far was among Asian people, an increase of 1.9%, or more than 8,500 people. The county’s Asian population has grown the fastest of any racial or ethnic group in the past decade.
King County’s Asian population was around 465,000 in 2021, making up almost 21% the county’s population, the sixth largest Asian population of any U.S. county.
The Hispanic, Black and multiracial populations in King County also increased, each by less than 1%. Hispanic people made up roughly 10% of the county’s population in 2021. Black people made up nearly 7% and multiracial people were close to 5%.
King County’s multiracial population — nearly 109,000 in 2021 — was the fifth largest of any U.S. county.