Population loss in Midwest’s cities continues, with ‘black flight’ latest trend

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No.5: May 2011

The story of the population and economic decline of some of the Midwest’s largest, historically most important cities did not begin in 2000 and will likely not end in 2010.

Nonetheless, data from U.S. Census 2010 are striking in showing the extent of the out-migration from many of this region’s central towns.

  • Detroit lost a quarter of its people and had its lowest population count since 1920
  • Nine of Ohio’s 10 largest cities lost population, with Cleveland leading the decline with the loss of more than 80,000 people.
  • Among U.S. cities with 100,000 or more residents in 2000, 42 lost population. Close to half of those cities (18) are in the Midwest. Eleven of the 20 U.S. cities undergoing the sharpest population declines are from four states in this region — Illinois (one), Indiana (two), Michigan (three) and Ohio (five).

As Alan Mallach notes in a 2010 Brookings Institution study on America’s distressed older cities, myriad factors have contributed to population and job losses for decades: Increased access to affordable mortgages and the rise of automobile ownership, for example, allowed people to buy homes and live in the suburbs, while declines in public services and increases in crime rates further contributed to out-migration patterns.

In the Midwest, in particular, the loss of manufacturing jobs has crippled local economies and, as a result, led to population losses. Mallach cites Dayton and Detroit as two examples: They lost 46 percent and 40 percent of their manufacturing jobs, respectively, in the 1970s.

Compounding these longer-term trends are more recent factors. Along with an overall decline in private sector employment over the past decade, some cities in the Midwest have been disproportionately affected by the rise in foreclosures and drop in housing prices, Mallach says.

Brookings demographer William Frey notes another significant demographic pattern uncovered in the Census 2010 data: what he calls “black flight” from cities such as Chicago and Detroit.

Frey’s analysis of the latest data shows a reversal of 20th-century trends, with blacks now moving from northern cities to the South. And he says laws against housing discrimination along with better educational and economic opportunities for blacks have likely contributed to a second trend: a larger percentage of this minority group moving to the suburbs.

More than half of black residents living in metropolitan areas now reside in the suburbs, Frey concludes in his recent study of the federal statistics (51 percent in 2010 compared to 37 percent in 1990).

This national trend holds true throughout the Midwest, including in areas with traditionally low rates of black residents. In the suburbs of Indianapolis and Des Moines, Iowa, for example, the rates of black residents grew by 150 percent and 146 percent, respectively (the highest two rates in the nation).