Special Report

American Cities That Went From Rich To Poor

Michael B. Sauter, Thomas C. Frohlich

Over the last 50 years, incomes in the United States have increased dramatically. Even after adjusting for inflation, per capita income more than doubled, from $14,700 in 1959 to $33,831 today. There are a number of U.S. metropolitan areas that, due to economic decline, have gone from being relatively high-income places to some of the poorest. 

To determine the American cities that went from rich to poor, 24/7 Wall St. calculated per capita income for all U.S. metropolitan statistical areas in both 1959, the first year with consistent data, and in 2018. We ranked the cities based on their change in rank relative to all metropolitan areas from 1959 to 2018. For the purpose of comparison, we calculated the 1959 income levels for areas that comprise today’s metropolitan areas.

Click here to see the American cities that went from rich to poor.
Click here to see our full methodology.

Many of the metropolitan areas on this list are in the Midwest, spanning an area that has come to be known as the Rust Belt. These metropolitan areas are former industry hubs and innovation centers that were prosperous in the middle of the 20th century. By the 1970s, however, steel manufacturers, automakers, and other staples of American industry had already started divestment in domestic labor forces and reductions in manned labor, by opening factories overseas and implementing automated processes. Businesses were scaled down or vanished entirely from these cities.

In general, once those companies left, these cities, which had been highly dependent on specific industries, began to stagnate. Between 1959 and 2018, the U.S. population increased by 82.4%. The majority of the metro areas on this list had population increases over the same period of less than half the U.S. rate, and four actually had population declines over this period. These are 5 cities that have lost half of more of their populations since 1950.

There are a few exceptions to this rule of population stagnation on this list, notably metro areas in California like Stockton and Redding, which have much larger populations than they did 50 years ago. While these metro areas generally enjoyed economic, housing, and population boom ahead of the financial crisis, their economies collapsed when the subprime mortgage crisis hit and they are still recovering from the collapse. 

While the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.9% in 2018, a number of metropolitan areas on this list had unemployment rates of over 5%, with one California metro area’s jobless rate clocking in at 8.0%. These are the American cities losing the most jobs over the last five years.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, the two countries that comprise the Walla Walla, WA metro area were incorrectly listed as Columbia and McLennan counties. The two counties that make up the metropolitan area are in fact Columbia and Walla Walla counties.