No, St. Louis Does Not Show That the Midwest Is 'in Trouble'

Mar 24, 2017 at 9:10 am
St. Louis is alright.

There was some bad news out of the U.S. Census Bureau yesterday. The federal agency released its annual population estimates yesterday, tracking the changes from July 2015 to July 2016, and St. Louis came in for some negative attention.

St. Louis County received special notice in the bureau's report on counties losing population — it dipped below 1 million residents "for the first time since 2011," the bureau reported. St. Louis city also came in for special mention, and it wasn't good either. Of all the counties (or their equivalents) in the U.S., the city notched the second highest population loss. Our 1.1 percent population loss was worse than Wayne County, Michigan (which holds Detroit); Cuyahoga County, Ohio (which holds Cleveland); and Cook County, Illinois (which holds Chicago). Only Jefferson County, New York, fared worse.

And so when, a respected website that's part of the Atlantic, concluded, "The Midwest is in trouble," St. Louis city was Exhibit A. "For example, the city of St. Louis lost nearly 3,500 residents between July 2015 and 2016, representing a 1.1 percent population drop — the sharpest out of any city in the country, and a much sharper local decline than in recent years."

Sounds dire. The problem is, that analysis — and some parts of the bureau's presentation — don't hold up to scrutiny if you know anything about St. Louis.

Most importantly: Once again, St. Louis city nearly topped the list of "counties or their equivalents" losing population only because of our stupid city/county split. St. Louis city is not equivalent to Cuyahoga County, or Wayne County, or Cook County — it is, rather, equivalent to the cities inside them. It's one piece of the whole. But because of our ass-backwards division, the census bureau is forced to treat us like a standalone.

If you combine St. Louis city and St. Louis County — which, again, allows for the apples to apples comparison — the population drop is less than one percent. Our -0.5 percent change would be nothing to boast about, but it puts us right in the middle of our peers, equivalent to Milwaukee County. Not great, but not the kind of thing that draws special mention.

Beyond that, the real news is that there is no news. What the Census numbers actually show is that the metropolitan area as a whole barely changed one bit. The St. Louis metro had 2,808,330 residents in 2015, and 2,807,002 residents in 2016. That's a change of 0.0 percent — leaving us the twentieth largest metropolitan area in 2016 .... same as in 2015. And that suggests, contrary to the City Lab analysis, that any problem here is less that a horde of people are moving to the Sunbelt — and more that the dribble of residents to St. Charles and Belleville, Illinois, and other far-flung suburbs continues.

Again, nothing to be proud of. The city needs to gain residents, not lose them — and if St. Louis County ever felt smug about the city's population losses, it's high time they look in the mirror. But please, let's refrain from panicking.

City Lab says the Midwest is in trouble. We'd prefer to characterize it as holding its own.

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