The population of the United States has increased steadily by roughly 2.5 million people every year since World War II. Throughout prosperity and hard times, Americans continue to have families. Many of the country’s regions have expanded to accommodate this population increase. Some cities have grown faster than others as the result of being at the center of some important new technology or job market. Others have lost residents because of failing industries and migration. Nevertheless, some of these cities have continued to grow slowly, or at least remain relatively stagnant, buoyed by the rising tide of the national population.
There are some cities, however, that have experienced such severe hardship and decline that their populations have actually decreased significantly. New Orleans has lost more than a quarter of its population in the past 10 years as the result of Hurricane Katrina. The rest of the cities that have lost major parts of their population have seen their flagship industries, which include coal, steel, oil, and auto-related manufacturing, fall off or completely collapse. America moved away from its status as an industrial superpower in the second half of the 20th century as the services sector rose to replace it. Millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. Cities such as Rochester, Cleveland and Buffalo declined in population because they were trade hubs, and new modes of transportation removed their geographical dominance. Cities like Flint, Mich., have economies based on a single major industry. In Flint’s case, that industry is auto manufacturing. When that industry began to decline, Flint was unable to diversify to prevent a population exodus.
All of the cities on this list experienced at least one of these devastating problems, which have caused tens of thousands -- and in some cases, hundreds of thousands -- of its residents to leave the region for other jobs and other homes. While it has been the primary focus of these cities to create new sources of employment for their residents, it may be years before people return, if they do at all.
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Unfortunately, the populations of most of the cities on this list continue to decline and the situation could get worse for years. This loss of residents has caused severe drops in the social services that many of these cities can provide. Property and other taxes have fallen so much that the support that residents of other cities take for granted is at risk in the municipalities on this list. There is no longer any guarantee that they can maintain police and fire departments at reasonable levels. Some of these cities cannot continue to manage large neighborhoods that have become almost deserted as residents have left unoccupied homes behind. Home vacancy rates tell a great deal about how much a city’s population has dropped.
24/7 obtained its population data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Division. Housing vacancy came from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This is a list of the seven American cities that have lost the most people in the past decade:
1. New Orleans
Population Change 2000-2009: -128,813
Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -26.63%
Home Vacancy: 21.5%
New Orleans is unique in that its presence on this list is not due to industrial decline, but from natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of the city, caused by some estimates more than $80 billion in damage, and displaced tens of thousands of residents. The period of widespread homelessness, severe crime, and slow recovery has left the city as a shadow of its former self. While people are trickling back into the city, many will likely never return, and the city has lost more than a quarter of its population in just 10 years.
2. Flint, Mich.
Population Change 2000-2009: -13,266
Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -10.63%
Home Vacancy: 18%
While most of the cities on this list are here as the result of a general decline in industry, Flint’s woes have come almost entirely from one sector -- the auto industry. Flint became a boomtown at the turn of the century as it became a divisional headquarters to the major American auto manufacturers, including Chevrolet, Buick, and General Motors. Between 1910 and 1930, the population had more than quadrupled due to the success of the American car business. Since the American auto industry began its decline in the 1980s, Flint has consistently lost at least 10% of its population each decade. Massive layoffs and plant closings have devastated the city, and unemployment rates remain well into the double digits.
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Population Change 2000-2009: -45,205
Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -9.49%
Home Vacancy: 17.5%
Cleveland, the largest city on our list, was once a thriving manufacturing center, as well as an important point of trade because of its connection to several key routes, particularly Lake Erie. The city was once home to a sizable auto industry. Most of the largest companies that were once based in Cleveland no longer exist. These include Peerless, People’s and Winton. Cleveland also served as headquarters for John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, as well as a key import location for coal and iron shipped from the South and Midwest. The decline of industrial American has hit the city particularly hard, and poverty, a default on municipal debt in the ’70s, and pollution have earned the city the nickname "the mistake on the lake." In 1948, the city had over 910,000 people; it now has less than half of that.
4. Buffalo, N.Y.
Population Change 2000-2009: -21,970
Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -7.52%
Home Vacancy: 17.2%
Another victim of the Erie Canal boom and bust, Buffalo was the 13th largest city in the country just before WW II. It is now the 70th. Like Rochester, the city was once a premier mill town due to its location to the canal. Massive electricity generation from Niagara Falls improved Buffalo’s industrial capacity, and the city referred to itself as the "City of Lights" for a time because of its power production. The collapse of the canal and improvements in the energy industry that made Niagara Falls less important led to the mass migration from the city which continues to this day. In the 1970s alone, Buffalo lost more than 100,000 residents, roughly a third of its current population.
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5. Dayton, Ohio
Population Change 2000-2009: -11,961
Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -7.21%
Home Vacancy: 18.9%
For its size, Dayton, Ohio, was once one of the most productive and creative cities in the U.S. It produced more patents per capita at the turn of the century than any other. The city was home to several former great Fortune 500 companies, including National Cash Register, Mead Paper and Phillips Manufacturing. Through the first half of the 20th century, Dayton had one of the healthiest manufacturing industries. It had more GM autoworkers than any city outside of Michigan during World War II. In the past 50 years, Mead has merged with West Virginia Paper and moved to Richmond, and GM has closed one plant after another in the city.
Population Change 2000-2009: -22,056
Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -6.61%
Home Vacancy: 14.1%
Known as the "Steel City," Pittsburgh was once the forge for the American industrial engine from the late 1800s through the late 1970s. At its peak, the city was home to more than 1,000 factories, including the mills owned by Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel, which by itself employed over 340,000 workers during World War II. As the American steel industry collapsed in the 1980s, Pittsburgh suffered severe unemployment problems. In the past few decades, the city changed to a technology-based economy, but the population is still on the decline. Since 1950, Pittsburgh’s population has declined by more than 50%.
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7. Rochester, N.Y.
Population Change 2000-2009: -12,180
Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -5.55%
Home Vacancy: 15.3%
Rochester was once a booming trade center largely due to its location at the midpoint between Albany and Buffalo on the Erie Canal. At its peak, the city was the major flour processor in the country, and was home to several key corporations including Xerox and Eastman Kodak. Rochester declined as the usefulness of the canal went out with the advent of railroads and its flagship companies began to lose their relevancy in the larger global economy. Rochester has yet to produce an important replacement industry to drive up the population, and even the success in the 1990’s of Xerox has faded. Between 1950 and 2000, Rochester lost 34% of its population.
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