Detroit is Dying… Quickly

Photo: iStockphoto

Census data released this week confirmed what we already knew: Detroit is dying. It’s just happening much faster than we thought. From 2000 to 2010, Detroit lost a quarter of its population; 273,500 people. According to news reports, local officials are stunned, including Mayor Dave Bing, who wants a recount.

After New Orleans, which lost 29 percent of its population in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Detroit’s 25 percent loss is the largest percentage drop in the history of an American city with more than 100,000 people. Just ten years ago, Detroit was the tenth largest city in the country. Demographers at the Brookings Institute now believe it might have fallen all the way to 18th, with just 713,777 people. That’s the smallest it’s been since 1910, just before the automotive boom brought millions of well-paid jobs and turned Detroit into the Motor City. It’s hard to imagine, but up until 1950, Detroit was the fourth biggest city in America. In 1960, it had the highest per-capita income in the U.S.

While the complete 2010 U.S. Census data won’t be released until Thursday, enough of it is available to see which other cities were big losers in the first decade of the 21st century:  Cleveland lost 17%, Cincinnati lost 10.4%, Pittsburgh lost 8.6%, Toledo lost 8.4% See a trend? Looks like more of the same as the American Rust Belt continues to fade.

This isn’t to say that cities are losing out everywhere. In fact, as William H. Frey of the Brookings Institute pointed out this summer, cities made up significant ground on  suburbs during the latter half of the last decade. And don’t forget, as evidenced by our talk with Ed Glaeser last month, cities still rock.






All of the cities listed (sans Pittsburgh) have a city income tax that takes additional taxes out of paychecks of people who live or work in their city.

Maybe coincidence...but maybe not.


Detroit will grow again. At some point, as more people leave the city, and Real Estate prices bottom out, a new group will see an opportunity. I bet in a decade or two, it's a nice place to live. I see lots of small urban farms in its future.

Mike Richards

What's the source for the clam that Detroit had the highest per capita income in the US in 1960? Census tables I've seen for 1960 only give household income for MSAs and Detroit is in no way is Detroit the highest. I've seen this factoid attributed to Newt Gingrich and picked up by right-wing blogs, but surely Freakonomics has better data sources, so it would great to know where that number comes from.


I don't believe it either. I'd say in 1960 Flint had a higher per capita income than Detroit.


"In 1960, it had the highest per-capita income in the U.S."

please note that this is when Detroit had it LAST Republican mayor. There has been a Democrat in office there since 1962. The start of the downfall.