Reaction to Newsweek’s list of “dying cities”

Search for “dying city” and “Newsweek” and what you will see in the Google results is not the original article but rather reactions from some of the listed cities. Newspapers in South Bend, Rochester (NY), and Grand Rapids have voiced their displeasure.

This recent list from Newsweek is based on Census data and the cities that experienced the greatest population declines from 2000 to 2009:

We used the most recent data from the Census Bureau on every metropolitan area with a population exceeding 100,000 to find the 30 cities that suffered the steepest population decline between 2000 and 2009. Then, in an attempt to look ahead toward the future of these regions, we analyzed demographic changes to find which ones experienced the biggest drop in the number of residents under 18. In this way, we can see which cities may have an even greater population decline ahead due to a shrinking population of young people.

Here are the 10 cities that had the steepest drop in overall population as well as the largest decline in the number of residents under the age of 18.

Some thoughts about this data:

1. All of these cities, except two (one in FL, one in CA), are in the Rust Belt. Many of these cities are not surprises.

2. The local reactions seem to be expressions of civic pride. People in these cities can’t ignore the population loss but they are right in saying their cities are not going completely to waste. There are some good things going on in these places but broader population trends are working against them.

3. “Dying city” does not equal “dead city.” Dying doesn’t mean that everybody is leaving, just that these cities lead the country in percentage population loss. A real “dead city” would have no population left. These cities are from that point.

4. Perhaps what angers locals most is that articles like these can further negative stereotypes. These places already suffer from perception problems and lists like this do not help. For example, it is any surprise that Detroit continues to lose population after years of commentators saying how bad of shape Detroit is in? People probably leave places like Detroit for reasons more important than punditry (reasons like jobs, opportunities, etc.) but it could play some role.

Cities that are losing population

The list of the top seven American cities in population loss (measured as a percentage of total population) is not surprising: New Orleans, Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Rochester (NY). And outside of New Orleans, why these cities have lost population is also not difficult to figure out: a loss of manufacturing jobs.

But a list like this raises some questions about cities:

1. Is it that unusual for cities to lose population? If cities can boom, as these cities did during the industrial boom, why can’t they also go bust?

2. The headline on the article is misleading: “US cities running out of people.” There are still plenty of people in these communities – what is unusual is that the population is declining.

3. Is there a point where these population losses will stabilize? I always wonder this about cities – some people stay because there are still some jobs, particularly medical, municipal, and service jobs available.

4. Is there something the federal government could do to help these communities reverse these trends? Is there a public interest in not letting cities like these slowly die?

5. Measuring the city’s population is perhaps not the best way to go about it. How have the metropolitan populations changed? Are there still people in the region? This would make a difference.