America’s Fastest Shrinking Cities

April 4, 2016 by Thomas C. Frohlich

Shrinking city, abondoned
Source: Thinkstock
The U.S. population grew by 0.79% last year, just slightly faster than the previous year’s growth rate but still among the slowest rates in decades.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in metropolitan areas rose to 275.3 million in 2015, an increase of 2.5 million. While urban areas on the whole are growing, the population of several metro areas shrank last year. Over the last five years, the populations of 23 metros declined by more than 2%. By contrast, the U.S. population increased by 3.9% over that time.

William Frey, senior fellow and demographer at public policy research think tank Brookings Institution, explained, the areas gaining the most in population are “gaining more than they have in the previous few years, the losing areas losing more than they have — many of them — in the previous three years.” Frey noted that this migration trend is a continuation of the one that has been going on since before the recession.

Click here to see America’s fastest shrinking cities.

Click here to see America’s fastest growing cities.

People need to leave a metropolitan area in order for its population to decline. However, these areas are shrinking also because they are failing to attract new migrants. With only a few exceptions, all of the fastest shrinking metro populations declined primarily as a result of net migration.

Jobs are perhaps the single most important driver of urban expansion. The relatively weak job markets and low income levels in these 20 shrinking areas mean there are likely fewer economic opportunities, which would attract new residents and encourage current residents to stay. The unemployment rate in every one of these areas exceeds the national jobless of 5% in January 2016. The average income is also lower than the national per capita income of $47,615 in all 20 metros.

Of the 20 fastest shrinking metro areas, half are in the rust belt — the central U.S. region characterized by its decaying industrial base and population loss. Many of these urban areas are still heavily dependent on manufacturing. The percentage of the workforce employed in manufacturing is greater than the national proportion of 10.3% in 12 of the 20 areas.

These cities also tend to have older populations. Migrants tend to be younger in general, so this could mean these areas are not as attractive to Americans most likely to relocate. The birth rate also tends to be lower in places with older populations.

In all but two of these 20 areas, the percentage of residents 65 and older exceeds the national proportion of 14.5%. Nationwide and in most U.S. areas, births are far more likely to outpace deaths. In nine of the 20 fastest shrinking metro areas, however, the population decrease from deaths was greater than the population increase from births over the last five years.

Based on recently released U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed population changes in the 381 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas from July 2010 through July 2015. Poverty rates, educational attainment rates, and workforce composition came from the Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey. Data on incomes and price levels as of 2014 and 2010, respectively, are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Unemployment rates are for January 2016, and annual unemployment rates for 2010 and 2014 are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Metro area GDP per capita income are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and are in 2010 dollars.

These are America’s fastest shrinking cities.

20. Kankakee, IL
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.27%
> Total population: 110,879
> Per capita income: $35,657
> Unemployment rate: 8.7%

Like a number of other shrinking cities, especially those in Illinois and other parts of the rust belt, Kankakee’s unemployment rate of 8.7% is one of the highest in the country. The weak job market may be partially a symptom of the city’s decaying industrial base. Like a number of other shrinking U.S. cities, Kankakee’s economy is relatively dependent on manufacturing. The sector employs 13.4% of the area’s workforce, higher than the national proportion.

19. Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville, AL
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.38%
> Total population: 115,620
> Per capita income: $32,753
> Unemployment rate: 7.0%

Unlike the nation as a whole and most U.S. metro areas, the number of deaths in the Anniston areas exceeded the population increase from new births over the past five years. As in other shrinking cities, Anniston area residents are not especially wealthy, which could be a sign of the economic weaknesses that push out current residents and fail to attract new ones. The average resident earns $32,753, nearly the lowest per capita income nationwide.

18. Rockford, IL
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.45%
> Total population: 340,663
> Per capita income: $38,234
> Unemployment rate: 8.5%

More than 20% of workers in Rockford is employed in the manufacturing sector, double the national percentage. Like other cities in the rust belt, Rockford ’s dependence on manufacturing is typical, as is the ensuing urban decay and population loss. Rockford’s jobless rate of 8.5% is far higher than the national rate of 4.9%.

17. Wheeling, WV-OH
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.47%
> Total population: 144,198
> Per capita income: $40,410
> Unemployment rate: 8.7%

There were close to 10,000 deaths reported in Wheeling over the past five years. The level of mortality in an area rarely outweighs the population growth from births. In Wheeling, however, new births contributed just 7,839 to the population. Like only a few other metro areas, the natural decline contributes more to the city’s population loss than migration.

16. Ocean City, NJ
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.61%
> Total population: 94,727
> Per capita income: $51,812
> Unemployment rate: 13.6%

With per capita income of $51,812, Ocean City residents are exceptionally wealthy compared to people in other shrinking cities. However, the area’s unemployment rate of 13.6% is one of the highest in the country. Ocean City residents are also relatively old — 24% of people in the area are 65 or older, well above the nationwide share of 14.5%.

15. Albany, GA
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.63%
> Total population: 153,526
> Per capita income: $33,692
> Unemployment rate: 6.3%

The number of people living in the Albany, Georgia metro area declined by 2.6% over the last five years. As in other shrinking cities, Albany residents are not especially wealthy, which could be a sign of the economic weaknesses that push out current residents and fail to attract new ones. The average annual income of $33,692 in Albany is far lower than the national per capita income of $47,615.

14. Pittsfield, MA
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.63%
> Total population: 127,828
> Per capita income: $47,458
> Unemployment rate: 6.0%

Births usually contribute more to population change than deaths, even in the nation’s shrinking cities. In Pittsfield, however, this was not the case in the last five years. While 7,434 area residents died over that period, new births added only 5,865 new residents over that time. The deaths were a relatively large driver of the overall population decline. Pittsfield’s population is older compared to most U.S. areas. More than one in every five Pittsfield residents is 65 or older.

13. Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.65%
> Total population: 549,885
> Per capita income: $37,166
> Unemployment rate: 8.5%

The number of deaths over the last five years in the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman area exceeds the number of residents added from new births over that period, one of relatively few U.S. metro areas where the natural population growth — deaths minus births — was negative. The fastest shrinking metro areas tend to have higher shares of older residents, while the opposite is true for expanding metro populations. In Youngstown, 19.4% of residents are 65 or older, one of the highest proportions nationwide.

12. Charleston, WV
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.77%
> Total population: 220,614
> Per capita income: $42,046
> Unemployment rate: 6.9%

Charleson’s relatively high violent crime and unemployment rates may partially explain its recent exodus as well as its lack of appeal to prospective residents. Roughly 500 violent crimes per 100,000 residents are reported annually, well above the national violent crime rate of 366 per 100,000 people. The area’s jobless rate of 6.9% is also higher than the national unemployment rate of 4.9%.

11. Danville, IL
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.86%
> Total population: 79,282
> Per capita income: $35,009
> Unemployment rate: 9.1%

Like a number of other shrinking cities, Danville’s economy has suffered from a long-term decline of the area’s once vibrant industrial sector. With falling wages, the area has become increasingly less appealing to Americans seeking to relocate. Nearly 3,000 more people departed from Danville than arrived over the last five years. Manufacturing jobs still account for 18.2% of the workforce, considerably higher than the nationwide share of 10.3% who work in the sector.

10. Rocky Mount, NC
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-2.87%
> Total population: 148,069
> Per capita income: $35,544
> Unemployment rate: 8.0%

North Carolina is not considered part of the rust belt, but like many economically depressed areas in the rust belt, Rocky Mount is relatively dependent on its manufacturing sector. The industry employs 15.6% of area workers, well above the national proportion of 10.3% who work in the sector. The once vibrant industrial base has been eroding for many years, and dependence on manufacturing often goes hand in hand with high unemployment and population loss. In Rocky Mount, 8% of the workforce is unemployed, one of the higher jobless rates in the country.

9. Weirton-Steubenville, WV-OH
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-3.03%
> Total population: 120,512
> Per capita income: $35,150
> Unemployment rate: 9.2%

The Weirton-Steubenville area is one of only a few U.S. urban regions where the natural population decline — changes due to births and deaths — was greater than the decline attributable to migration. Over the last five years, 875 more people left than arrived to the Weirton area, a relatively small population loss due to migration. Natural events, by contrast, drove down the population by nearly 3,000 people. This could be tied to the relatively older population. Of metro area residents, 19.2% are 65 or older, one of the highest such shares in the country.

8. Decatur, IL
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-3.14%
> Total population: 107,303
> Per capita income: $43,413
> Unemployment rate: 8.7%

Of the 20 fastest shrinking U.S. cities, Decatur is one of four in Illinois. Like other Midwestern metro areas, Decatur’s once vibrant industrial sector has been on the decline. The area’s long-term economic struggles drove urban decay and population loss. Decatur’s unemployment rate of 8.7% — one of the highest nationwide — reflects the area’s economic weakness. On the other hand, the city’s per capita annual income of $43,413, while lower than the national income level, is one of the higher figures compared with other shrinking cities.

7. Cumberland, MD-WV
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-3.17%
> Total population: 99,979
> Per capita income: $35,849
> Unemployment rate: 7.7%

One of the signs of a healthy city’s economy is a fast growing, young population. In Cumberland, more people left than arrived and more people died than were born over the last five years. Also, nearly one in every five residents are 65 or older, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. metro area.

6. Saginaw, MI
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-3.31%
> Total population: 193,307
> Per capita income: $34,050
> Unemployment rate: 5.2%

Michigan was once a major U.S. manufacturing hub, with many cities depending on the industry. Today, many Michigan cities have fallen into decay. Saginaw is no different. Residents have relatively low incomes, earning $34,050 annually, well below the national per capita income of $47,615. A byproduct of the economic decline, low incomes are common in the nation’s shrinking cities.

5. Flint, MI
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-3.34%
> Total population: 410,849
> Per capita income: $34,878
> Unemployment rate: 5.5%

Nearly 20,000 more people left than arrived to Flint over the last five years, driving the area’s population loss of 3.3%. The area’s once robust manufacturing industry is no longer attracting the employers, or the young, prospective employees indicative of a healthy economy. The industry employs 16.2% of the city’s workforce, one of the highest percentages.

4. Sierra Vista-Douglas, AZ
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-4.08%
> Total population: 126,427
> Per capita income: $36,720
> Unemployment rate: 6.6%

Over the last five years, the number of people living in the Sierra Vista-Douglas area shrank by nearly 5%, the fourth worst decline in the country. Many parts of Arizona, which was hit especially hard during the housing crisis, still have weak economies. In the Sierra Vista-Douglas area, 6.6% of the workforce is unemployed, one of the highest annual unemployment rates nationwide. The rate is down considerably from previous years, however.

3. Johnstown, PA
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-4.92%
> Total population: 136,411
> Per capita income: $37,536
> Unemployment rate: 6.7%

Like in only a few U.S. metro areas, there were more deaths than births over the last five years in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. However, it was outward migration that drove the area’s population decline of 4.9% over that period. Nearly 5,000 more people left Johnstown than arrived in the last five years. Johnstown is part of the rust belt — areas once heavily dependent on manufacturing.

2. Pine Bluff, AR
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-6.38%
> Total population: 93,696
> Per capita income: $30,986
> Unemployment rate: 6.4%

Pine Bluff’s violent crime rate of 685 incidents per 100,000 residents — nearly the highest of U.S. metro areas — likely deters prospective residents and has likely contributed to the region’s exodus. Over the last five years, 7,062 more people left the area than arrived. This accounted for the entirety of Pine Bluff’s 6.4% population decrease. Area residents are also not wealthy. Pine Bluff’s per capita income of $30,986 is nearly the lowest of all U.S. metros.

1. Farmington, NM
> Population growth (2010-2015):
-8.76%
> Total population: 118,737
> Per capita income: $36,197
> Unemployment rate: 7.8%

Farmington’s population shrank by 8.8% over the last five years, faster than any other metro in the country. As is common in the nation’s shrinking cities, Farmington has a relatively high violent crime rate and relatively low incomes. There are approximately 535 violent crimes per 100,000 area residents, well above the national rate of 366 incidents per 100,000 people. The area’s annual per capita income of $36,197 is also well below the $47,615 income of the average American.