A groundbreaking study out of Chicago has confirmed a troubling trend that is changing America: the depopulation of our cities.
This leading-edge analysis, Depopulation and associated challenges for US cities by 2100, was a team effort from the University of Illinois Chicago. Their shocking conclusion? Half of America’s 30,000 cities will have population decline this century.
The study’s rigorous scholarship is no less monumental than its findings. Over 24,000 American cities were examined to document that de-urbanisation is no longer an aberration, but the new normal with no end in sight. Consider: urbanisation was prevalent for most of American history. As the economy grew, people left the country and headed for cities where prosperity beckoned. All was well while it lasted.
Those days are over. The Idea of Progress, the secular faith in a country weaned on individualism and unlimited frontiers, is sputtering to an end. As yours truly posited in these pages last year:
The Idea of Progress, the belief that history ineluctably proceeds towards material well-being and a better life, took hold and superseded religious faith. This belief emerged from Enlightenment empiricism. Mankind had come to believe in itself: Master of the Universe. Modernism was born.
The UI Chicago researchers have unwittingly revealed that Modernism is retrogression. “Modern” has done a 180, and the mantra of perpetual growth wanes. Remember that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times?
The UI Chicago disquisition elicited a priceless Fox News clickbait header: “Thousands of US cities are predicted to become ghost towns by 2100: New study.” While things are not that dire, urban America’s decline is underway.
That is problematic. Urban infrastructure has been designed and built to accommodate existing populations as well as anticipated growth. Water systems and electrical grids are expensive to maintain; a declining tax base will lead to reduced services:
Given the current challenges with aging infrastructure in the United States, this reduced financial capacity will probably lead to a lower level of service and even cascade to create unaffordable services. For example, repaving some roads and providing some transit services may become prohibitively expensive… and electric and water utilities may have to raise their rates given the reduced revenue from depopulation, which can create affordability issues that disproportionately impact vulnerable populations.
Below replacement fertility, urban blight and tight money signal the mutation of America’s optimistic “progress” zeitgeist to something less rosy.
The impact on suburban and peri-urban (transitioning from rural to urban) areas is pronounced. Population increases there drain residents from the core cities. As a result, the remaining/left-behind urban core is disproportionately poor. Those are the “vulnerable populations” referenced in the study.
Places like Cleveland, Detroit, Birmingham, Memphis and St. Louis are prime examples. Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi received national attention for their deteriorating water services. While many factors are involved, urban out-migration and shrinking tax bases have set the stage for manifold problems.
Street and road maintenance will be “economised”. Prioritising maintenance and upgrades will be contentious. Reduced public transportation will affect those who need it most. Public water/sewer, waste disposal and electrical systems will curtail services.
Affordable housing will be another casualty as underutilised infrastructure is decommissioned. That happened in Detroit when the middle class decamped for the suburbs. Entire city blocks were condemned, residents relocated, services cut and fenced off. The Visitors and Convention Bureau does not publicise such things.
America has its slowest population growth ever, though illegal alien numbers are elusive. Reliance on immigration has been the easy way to find cheap labour and prop up urban population. That’s not working anymore. Per the study:
- Asian and Hispanic immigrants now favour smaller communities outside big cities.
- Urban depopulation is most severe in the Northeast and Midwest. Out West, southern California is the region most affected.
- Urban depopulation is coming to the Rocky Mountain states, long considered a refuge from frenzied California and the Northeast.
How to address this?
What is certain is that an important cultural shift in planning and engineering communities is needed, away from conventional, growth-based planning, to accommodate a dramatic demographic shift. [Emphasis added]
Note “dramatic demographic shift”. Any way you slice it, we’re talking about the decline of urban America.
How it started
Following the Martin Luther King assassination (1968), cities burned. Turmoil engulfed inner-city ghettoes. Racial tensions flared. White flight ensued, where folks voted with their feet to the suburbs.
What happened? LBJ’s Great Society, a colossal fiasco with its “War on Poverty”. This vastly expanded social welfare bureaucracy, giving rise to illogical relief schemes. One such program mandated higher assistance payments if there was no adult male (potential breadwinner) in the household. Talk about undermining the family. Why work when you could get by otherwise?
Then came food stamps, a second currency undermining the dollar. The welfare class metastasised. That, along with the swelling cadre of social services workers, boosted the client base of the Democratic Party.
PC penetrated law enforcement. Rather than uphold “law and order” (which itself became a code word for racism), authorities ceded the streets and advised people to just avoid certain areas.
Mass immigration depressed wages. Attendant congestion further diminished the appeal of urban living. Drug abuse skyrocketed, savaging families.
Birthrates plunged to below-replacement level, reflecting changing priorities, wokeism and ever-tightening finances. Urban living is no longer worth it for so many upwardly mobile types.
Then came the crippling triple whammy: Covid lockdowns shut down communities, wrecked the economy and sewed fear and division. Remote work became an option. There is no going back.
How others see us
An old friend is a veteran China Hand – sinologist, linguist, and analyst rolled into one. Smart guy. He says some Chinese scholars are fascinated with America’s decline. They say stuff like, “Don’t your leaders see this?” “Why won’t they do something?” “Can’t you even control your borders?”
Like Ancient Rome, America lost the republic and became an empire. Globalism rules. Whenever that happens, the sense of national identity, thus national pride, fades. What it even means to be an American is up for debate. Mammonism, demoralisation and anomie set in, and the rest is history.
It is not surprising that America’s cities are being depopulated. What goes around comes around.
Louis T. March has a background in government, business, and philanthropy. A former talk show host, author, and public speaker, he is a dedicated student of history and genealogy. Louis lives with his family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
EDITORS NOTE: This Mercator column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.