Detroit Population Fell 25% In Ten Years

A sad testament to what has become of what was once the capital city of America’s Rust Belt:

Laying bare the country’s most startling example of modern urban collapse, census data on Tuesday showed that Detroit’s population had plunged by 25 percent over the last decade. It was dramatic testimony to the crumbling industrial base of the Midwest, black flight to the suburbs and the tenuous future of what was once a thriving metropolis.

It was the largest percentage drop in history for any American city with more than 100,000 residents, apart from the unique situation of New Orleans, where the population dropped by 29 percent after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College.

The number of people who vanished from Detroit — 237,500 — was bigger than the 140,000 who left New Orleans.

The loss in Detroit seemed to further demoralize some residents who said they already had little hope for the city’s future.

“Even if we had depressing issues before, the decline makes it so much harder to deal with,” said Samantha Howell, 32, who was getting gas on Tuesday on the city’s blighted East Side. “Yes, the city feels empty physically, empty of people, empty of ambition, drive. It feels empty.”

Detroit’s population fell to 713,777 in 2010, the lowest since 1910, when it was 466,000. In a shift that was unthinkable 20 years ago, Detroit is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s a major city in free-fall,” said L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive of neighboring Oakland County, which was also hit by the implosion of the automobile industry but whose population rose by almost 1 percent, thanks to an influx of black residents. “Detroit’s tax base is eroding, its citizens are fleeing and its school system is in the hands of a financial manager.”

Nearly a century ago, the expansion of the auto industry fueled a growth spurt that made Detroit the fourth-largest city in the country by 1920, a place it held until 1950, when the population peaked at almost two million. By 2000, Detroit had fallen to 10th place.

Depending on final numbers from all cities, Detroit now may have dropped to 18th place, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Realistically, it seems unlikely that Detroit will ever really recover from this decline.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    I don’t know, I saw a good show about a Detroit renaissance.

    Related: Are Hipsters Reviving Detroit?

  2. Jack says:

    If people can’t find work, they leave.

    How long before the US stops being a destination for the highest educated from China and India and other nations and we start exporting our highly educated? I know in the semiconductor industry of several people who are now in Singapore and Hong Kong after 15 year careers in the US that vanished.

  3. john personna says:

    How long before the US stops being a destination for the highest educated from China and India and other nations and we start exporting our highly educated?

    It’s started. I think Mark TIldon is a good early example.

  4. Jay Tea says:

    Detroit, the city built by the Democratic political machine and Big Labor. Behold their proudest achievement!


  5. Jack says:

    I worked in advanced R&D in the semiconductor industry for 20 years. Ten or 15 years ago I was working on technology that is just now being introduced, and up to recent years I was working on stuff that won’t show up until 2015 or 2020. Now, I’m unemployed and cannot find a job (I’m “overqualified” for most of the few jobs in the industry that remain in US, and the skill set isn’t easily transferred to other industries that aren’t also in decline in the US), so I’m considering learning Chinese and moving to Singapore.

    I’m not the only one of my colleagues with this problem.

    So, when these foreign nations decide to stop sending us the electronics we need for our military, what will we do? We’ve not eaten but burned our seed corn.

  6. john personna says:

    My sister worked in Singapore for a year (oil industry). I visited and loved the place. Great people and great, great, food. I actually applied for a job there, and kind of got it. They said later they’d sent me an offer, and it was my fault for not asking why they’d never replied(!). That was for an Apple research center (knuckleheads). That would have been a different life path.

    Anyway, I’d take a job in Singapore. I’d even come out of retirement for one.

    … and no, this is probably not net-net good for the US as a whole.

  7. john personna says:

    BTW, you definitely don’t need a non-English language in Singapore.

  8. JKB says:

    Though some blame Detroit’s population losses on larger economic forces, economists Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer argue in a groundbreaking paper that the city’s problems are mostly self-inflicted. (The paper, called “The Curley Effect,” gets its name from legendary Boston mayor James Curley, who favored Irish residents and pushed other groups out.) After winning election in 1973, Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, consolidated his power, driving white residents, who had voted against him, out of the city by withdrawing services from their neighborhoods. Eventually, Glaeser and Shleifer write, Detroit became “an overwhelmingly black city mired in poverty and social problems”—and shrinking fast. source

    It’s hard to have much sympathy since the death of Detroit is due to liberal politics. They did miss that the captive industrial base was dying mostly killed off by strangling regulation and union rules of the showcase Progressive kind. Still, Detroit was killed by policies to drive the middle class out so as to consolidate the voting base for Democrat politicians that was mostly the dependent class.

    Detroit is just a prequel to what the Progressives want to do to the entire country with their redistributive, job-killing policies. There are more dying cities and their common trait is that they have not thrown off Democrat control.

  9. john personna says:

    JKB, shouldn’t we (Rational Discussion Flowchart) actually identify the things that are unique to Detroit?

    Isn’t there a wider thing called the “Rust Belt,” and didn’t cities with greater and smaller “Democratic machines” fall together?

  10. john personna says:

    (I would be sad if (alternate explanation) conservatives passed ground-shifting free trade bills, and then blamed local politics for the decline of the rust belt.)

    ((Was the way to defeat unions really to take away their jobs?))

  11. rjs says:

    cleveland fell from nearly a million in the 50s to around 425,000 now…every county from detroit to buffalo south to canton and pittsburg has lost population…

  12. michael reynolds says:

    I assume if Detroit is an example of Democratic failure, then New York and San Francisco would be examples of the Democrat’s and liberals’ unique ability to create world-class cities.

    And I guess if we’re being fair then we have to ascribe to Republicans and in particular Republican executives the fact that Mississippi and Alabama remain at the bottom of every measure.

    I suppose we should also blame the GOP for the way the plains states are emptying out in such numbers that it begins to look as if the smart move is to turn them into giant game preserves where the buffalo may once more roam.

  13. Drew says:

    As someone who spent early career years in the steel industry, and was involved in all things automotive – read: Detroit, the notion that Detroit is just a product of the “Rust Belt” phenomenon is ludicrous. Indianapolis was similarly dependant. Look at it now. Look at the difference in government policies in Detroit and Indy.

    And as for Reynolds……..NY is going broke. I can’t comment on SF. As for the plains states, those that aren’t dominated by Democrats – like IL and Michigan, which are insolvent – they are doing quite well. And what exodus does exist is going to SEastern cities………not exactly bastions of Democrat orthodoxy. Get a clue, Michael.

  14. wr says:

    Okay, we’ve heard from JKB and Jay Tea. Now we need jwest to add that anyone who ever committed a murder in Detroit is liberal and we’ve got the blowhard trifecta. Guys, we know that you believe — or say, at any rate — that evil liberals are the cause of every ill in the world. If you’ve actually got a thought or two beyond that, go ahead and make your case. But if you think screaming “liberals are icky!” is actually going to convince anyone, well, I guess you’ll fit right into the tea party.

  15. Dave Schuler says:

    Things change. In 1900 St. Louis was the third largest city in the country. Now it isn’t even in the top 10. Governments, companies, and individuals are all terrible at planning for change and nearly always respond to change too late to do much about it.

    Detroit has made mistakes. It has a city earnings tax, a proven way to drive businesses away. Political leaders also made very bad assumptions about future revenues.

    The title of this post refers to Detroit’s population but that isn’t the whole story or the real story. Detroit’s revenues have fallen faster than its population and its expenses haven’t declined as fast as its revenues. That’s another formula for disaster and its a formula we’re following at the national level with bipartisan support.

    I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to dredge up the stats on this but I suspect that the number of Detroit’s city employees hasn’t fallen as fast as its revenues or its general population. Chicago has much the same problem. So, for example, although Chicago’s population is 10% smaller today than it was a decade ago and the number of students enrolled in Chicago public schools has similarly dropped the number of people employed by the CPS has actually risen.

    A key problem in this picture is that when a city shrinks as Detroit has (and Detroit’s decline didn’t begin in 2000) public employee pensions don’t decline, too. It’s all very sad.

  16. jwest says:


    A great deal of my comments are specifically targeted at fact I don’t believe liberals are evil. I also don’t believe liberals are stupid.

    What I do believe is that liberals tend to be incredibly naïve and ill-informed, which leads them to embrace whatever junk science or new social theory that reinforces their misguided worldview. Because of this failure to be able to reason effectively, coupled with a genuine desire to help people they believe they are superior to, liberals engage in well-meaning activity that results in suffering, poverty, starvation and death.

    Because the devastation liberals leave in their wake is so immense, people centuries from now will look back and claim that they were evil. Historians will say liberals had to know the harm they were causing because the evidence was right in front of them. Hopefully, the writings of jwest will endure and future scholars will attribute the misery caused by the left to its rightful origin – the good intentions of people who just couldn’t think things through.

    Detroit will be a case study of how liberal governance “helped” the people.

  17. wr says:

    Yes, jwest, your writings will endure. You’ll be hailed as a visionary, your name invoked along with Socrates and Galileo. Now swallow the meds in the paper cup the nice lady in white hands you and go back to the rec room.

  18. Neil Hudelson says:


    Respectfully going to disagree with the Indy/Detroit comparison. I wholly agree that there is much more to Detroit’s downfall than the general problems of the rust belt, but the idea that Indy/Detroit were similarly dependent is false. (Note: My entire family is located in either Detroit or Indy and the surrounding areas. I know both these cities like the back of my hand).

    INDIANA may have had a lot of dependence on the automotive industries, but Indianapolis has had a varied economy for years, with most of the big industries being in the pharmaceutical and health care industries. That’s not a recent phenomenon.

    If you want a more apt comparison, it would be Detroit and Kokomo, IN (45 miles away from the nearest suburb of Indy). And Kokomo is doing just as poorly as Detroit, if not worse.

  19. michael reynolds says:


    You’re confusing disparate facts. I wasn’t commenting on SE cities, but on the states themselves. If Democratic politicians are guilty of causing all Detroit worries, why then wouldn’t GOP governors be likewise guilty of causing a state’s difficulties?

    There are other metrics than a balanced budget. So the budgets of NE and SD may be doing well — it’s easy when you have no population — but the states are nothingness within nothingness and getting more nothing every day. Whereas New York City is still the Big Apple.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    What I do believe is that liberals tend to be incredibly naïve and ill-informed, which leads them to embrace whatever junk science or new social theory that reinforces their misguided worldview.

    You mean like the naive way we believed black people should have equal rights, as should women and gays? Or our belief that all religions should be treated equally? Or the way we figured out that Vietnam was neither a vital interest nor winnable, while your side thought the opposite? Or the crazy way we’ve embraced evolution, while your side is still laying out stalls on Noah’s Ark?

  21. Franklin says:

    I think we’re overlooking the influence of a couple things on Detroit’s downfall. And since I live nearby, I know some of these things firsthand.

    1) Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick. It’s not that they were Democrats. It’s that they were totally corrupt in every way. The citizens of Detroit who voted for them deserved what they got, though.

    2) Big Three management. Everyone wants to blame the unions, and they deserve part or even most of the blame. But the CEOs were literally the most unimaginative people ever, as they watch foreign car makers march all over them with absolutely no response for decades. Plus they couldn’t negotiate diddly squat.

  22. RW Rogers says:

    With all due respect, Michael, while I do appreciate your point and largely agree, I’m not sure about holding up San Francisco as a model of a liberal city that works. IIRC, their unfunded pension liabilities are said to be about $6.8 billion. San Franciscans have not been shy about imposing taxes upon themselves yet the expected budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is expected to be around $380 million.