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Detroit Population Drops Dramatically in Latest Census

A street sign showing Detroit's city limits is shown near where a former Chrysler McGraw glass plant is being torn down along Ford Road in Detroit, March 22, 2011
A street sign showing Detroit's city limits is shown near where a former Chrysler McGraw glass plant is being torn down along Ford Road in Detroit, March 22, 2011

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Kane Farabaugh

New census figures for the Midwest U.S. state of Michigan show dramatic population declines. Michigan was the only state in the 2010 census to lose people. Its biggest city, Detroit, once the fourth largest in the nation, is now the 18th largest. That's due in part to an exodus created by massive job losses in the automotive industry. Here's a look at what the numbers mean for a city and region struggling through a housing and employment crisis.

With the loss of approximately 500,000 automotive jobs in the region during the past decade, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments Executive Director Paul Tait expected the 2010 census numbers to show some decline in Detroit’s population. "We expected much more around 750,000 people and it dropped down to just under 714,000 people. The magnitude of that surprised us."

The population of the so-called Motor City is at its lowest in more than a century. More than 230,000 people left the city in the past decade.  That 25-percent decline is one of the biggest on record for an urban area with a population of more than 100,000.

Significant population drop

"Some folks have left the state because of employment opportunities," said Tait. "Some, particularly middle-class African-American families, have left the city and gone to the suburbs within our region."

The dramatic exodus from a city that was once a symbol of America’s manufacturing boom has staggering implications for Detroit. Mayor David Bing said the low census figures will cost the city and the state of Michigan more money.

"Every person that is counted in the census brings approximately $10,000 to Detroit over the next decade for schools, roads, hospitals, and social service programs like Medicaid. We are in a fiscal crisis and we have to fight for every dollar. We can not afford to let these results stand."

Census figures questioned

Bing said he intends to challenge the current census figures, which puts the population of Detroit at 713,777.

"Personally, I do not believe the number is accurate and I do not believe it will stand up as we go through our challenge. The Census has a history of undercounting residents in urban cities like Detroit. We were undercounted in 2000, and our Census estimate was again revised in 2007. That tells us that the report will not be final as it relates to the total number of our population," said Bing.

Despite new techniques, which Tait said have made this the most accurate census to date, he agrees with the mayor that the figures do not represent Detroit’s current population.

"I do believe that there are more than 714,000 people in the city of Detroit," said Tait. "I firmly believe that. Is that 50,000? Probably not that high, but there are probably a couple tens of thousands of people that were undercounted."

Focusing on job creation

Tait said adjusting census figures, however, is not the answer to solving Detroit’s population decline, and Michigan’s fiscal crisis. "Part of the answer is absolutely righting this transformation of our economy and getting more jobs in the region. That is part of our strategy."

Tait said bringing jobs to Michigan might prevent more people from leaving Detroit and the region for employment in other states with booming populations, such as Arizona and Texas.

But the city is unlikely to attract enough jobs to once again see 2 million people filling the streets of Detroit, the population of the Motor City during its peak in 1950.

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