Impelled by a comment left by one of the regular commenters here I began thinking about the situation in which many American cities find themselves. My researches revealed something interesting: all major U. S. cities north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi have decreased in population from their peaks nearly 60 years ago. See the table below to get some idea of the scope of the change.
|City||Population at peak||Population now (est.)||Percentage difference|
Yes, neither St. Louis nor Minneapolis are east of the Mississippi but they follow the pattern of the Eastern cities. There appear to be two exceptions to that pattern: New York City and state capitals. In general the date of peak population for these cities was 1950 but in the case of St. Louis it was 1930.
There are all sorts of reasons for this startling transformation of American cities including
- Lifestyle reasons impelling people to move south or west
- Economic reasons impelling people to move south or west
- Cities just aren’t as necessary as they used to be
- Incompetent city governments
- Predatory state governments
- The interstate highway system
If you had the choice between living in Detroit and living in San Francisco which would you choose?
This dwindling in population has taken place even as the total population of the United States has doubled. Given the length of time over which urban populations have declined, it’s clearly a long-term trend. Rather than dwelling on measures to reverse the trend I believe it’s time to adjust to it.
Sharply smaller populations pose serious problems for cities. City revenues increase as their populations increase and decrease as their populations decrease but cities’ expenses don’t decrease nearly as quickly as revenues do when a city’s population decreases. A city block in which two hundred people live and one in which two people live both need sanitation, police, fire, and other city services but it’s a lot easier to distribute the cost of those services among two hundred people than it is between two.
Decreasing city populations make commitments for future payments like municipal bonds or city workers’ pensions significantly more difficult to satisfy. I don’t know what roll declining population has on the crisis in public workers’ pensions but it can’t be inconsequential.
Typically cities don’t have either the power or the will to, as me auld mither used to say, grasp the nettle and shrink the borders that made sense when the cities were 10% or 20% or, in some cases, 60% more populous than they are now and states must step in. It’s high time for states to start taking the task of downsizing cities seriously.