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The Midwest Is in Trouble

New Census estimates show the Snowbelt-to-Sunbelt migration pattern is deepening.

Tony Dejak/AP Photo

For all the talk of downtown revitalization in places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, the numbers don’t lie.  

The U.S. Census bureau released population estimates covering counties and metro areas today, and the picture is grim for the post-industrial Midwest and Northeast. For example, the city of St. Louis lost nearly 3,500 residents between July 2015 and 2016, representing a 1.1 percent population dropthe sharpest out of any city in the country, and a much sharper local decline than in recent years. Chicago, too, saw its long-term losses compound, with the largest numeric decline out of any metro area: more than 21,000 people, or 0.4 percent of its population. A similar story unfolded in Baltimore, which saw a rapid acceleration in population loss from 2015 to 2016. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Syracuse, Hartford, Buffalo, Scranton, and Rochester also lost thousands.

All told, according to Governing magazine, the “146 most densely populated counties lost a total of 539,000 residents to other parts of the country over the 12-month period ending in July, representing the largest decline in recent years.”

By far, Cook County, Illinois, saw the greatest losses. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

That also accounts for slowed growth in the largest metros in the U.S., including L.A. and New York City.

Urban centers, and particularly those in the Midwest and post-industrial north, are struggling to compete with the draw of the suburbs. That includes those along their own borders—for example, St. Charles County, outside St. Louis, posted growth. But the more dramatic migration continues to be from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt. Looser patterns of development, affordable housing, and jobs (particularly in the service industry and healthcare) in and around cities like Orlando, Las Vegas, and Phoenix drew in hundreds of thousands of newcomers.

King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, was a rare geographic outlier in the largest-gaining counties. Smaller cities in the Northwest showed surprisingly strong growth, too, as the economist Jed Kolko pointed out:

Among all metros with at least 250,000 population, four of the 10 areas where growth accelerated most from 2015 to 2016 were in Washington (Olympia and Spokane) or Oregon (Eugene and Salem); another northwestern city, Boise, Idaho, was also on the list.

Americans love their big, hot suburbs. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Several cities on the decline are actively strategizing ways to draw in more residents, selling off vacant properties at discount prices, offering tax breaks to businesses, and rolling out welcome mats to refugee populations. But the story of post-Recession migration hasn’t changed much in the past couple of years, and these numbers suggest that the Snowbelt-to-Sunbelt pattern is deepening.

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