Cities across the U.S. dying, according to census data
An AP story examining data from the 2010 Census reports that nearly a quarter of counties across the U.S. are dying. And that isn’t as figurative as it may seem: Just over 24 percent of the country’s 3,142 counties are suffering from what the Census terms a “natural decrease,” a trend in which there are more deaths than births in a given population.
The current percentage of counties facing natural decline is actually down from an all-time high of nearly 32 percent back in 2002, though it’s still higher than it had been in the years following that spike. The declining birthrate since the onset of the recession is thought to be at least partly responsible for the rise in dying counties.
And yet the decline in rural- and small-industry communities, devastating though it may be to economies like that of West Virginia (the state with the highest rate of natural decrease), is nothing new given that the peak came in 2002. It’s a continuation of an inexorable trend toward urbanization that began with the industrial revolution, and it’s no surprise that such rural areas and small towns have an aging population. Perhaps even more striking, then, is a measure of population change barely touched upon in the AP story and best viewed through the lens of a separate selection of Census data.
“Natural decrease” is, in a sense, just that: a natural consequence of urbanization and an aging population. Not quite so “natural,” however, is the phenomenon of dying cities, which is hinted at in some of the county data available from the Census, but is more clearly seen in a set of data looking at metropolitan population changes. The Census Bureau’s Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Area population trend statistics show changes from July 2008 to July 2009. Sixty metropolitan areas across the U.S. hemorrhaged residents or simply stagnated in population during that one-year period. Unsurprisingly, Detroit tops the list of metropolitan areas losing residents, with a drop of more than 20,000 people in the greater Detroit area. The best way, however, to get a complete picture of just how cities like Detroit are dying is by comparing the metropolitan data with the slightly more detailed county data.
For instance, Wayne County, Mich., was hit the hardest by Detroit’s — to put it euphemistically — population shifts. Wayne, which has Detroit as its county seat and carries the lion’s share of Detroit’s commuter workers among the three counties that comprise the city’s greater metropolitan area, lost a grand total of 23,176 people in just that one year between summer 2008 and summer 2009. And that sum is offset by a relatively high birth rate and a continued stream of immigration into the area. Take births, deaths and international immigration out of the equation and Wayne County ends up with a net loss of 34,794 people. Of course, the actual number of people abandoning the area altogether may be yet higher, since that net-population-loss figure includes any new residents moving from other areas within the U.S., marginal though that trend may be.
The rest of the list of metropolitan areas posting population losses or stagnation is a grim reminder of the death of industry in the U.S. Despite having less than a tenth of Detroit’s total population, Flint, Mich., comes in second in terms of total population loss. Looking instead at percentage of population lost, Flint tops the list, with more than 1 percent of the population gone between 2008 and 2009. Other than a handful of Florida retirement communities on the list largely due to “natural decrease” and immigration-related demographic shifts, the rest are a laundry list of Rust Belt cities that were all once host to manufacturing powerhouses: Battle Creek and Saginaw, Mich.; Youngstown, Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio; Pittsburgh and Johnstown, Pa. And so the list goes on.
Although not all cities and counties in the country have been hit so hard — the Sun Belt has fared particularly well, with the Dallas area gaining more than 150,000 residents and the Hinesville, Ga., area posting a population gain of 5.9 percent, both in the same one-year period — overall population trends in the U.S. reflect the reality in cities like Detroit.
The Census reports that from 2000 to 2009, the U.S. population grew by 9.1 percent. This figure is many times higher than countries like Japan and Korea facing outright population growth crises, but it is the lowest rate the U.S. has seen in any decade since the Great Depression.