There was general shock emanating from City Hall when the St. Louis census numbers were released. No one expected such a large decline in city population—especially when the 2009 American Survey seemed so upbeat. The gains the city enjoyed over recent growth seemingly disappeared with a single data file. My advice to the city: Don’t Panic!
First, we don’t have complete information yet. We only have the raw numbers for people. We don’t have many of the financial numbers yet, including poverty rates and age breakdowns. We may be surprised at “who” is leaving.
Second, this census is coming on the heels of a very nasty economic recession. Know what happens when there’s economic turmoil? People move. Plain. Simple. Know who moves more than others? Working poor. People with marginal employment are frequently the first to be laid off and the last to be re-hired. They face tough choices all the time, and especially when times are rough.
The overall unemployment rate is still hovering around 9%. Let’s break that down by education. According to one recent source, the unemployment rate for people with college degrees is about 5% (that’s about normal!). The rate for people with high school diplomas is about 9%. The unemployment rate of people with no high school diploma is a whopping 14%.
Let’s face it. The city showed growth where it put its investment—downtown—and relative stability in other places. The city showed substantive loss in neighborhoods that (historically) have been poor, and in a school district with a dropout rate over 20% and a graduation rate of about 50%. The census does not necessarily show that the city is doing anything wrong. It just shows that, when times are tough, the poorest populations move—layoffs, evictions, traveling to new labor markets, moving in with family members.
Times are still rough, though we’re pulling out of it at a slow but steady pace. When the economy returns to normal (and it may be a new kind of normal), St. Louis will keep plugging along as it has for many decades. This is a great city and a great region. It is resilient. The first batch of numbers looked rough, but don’t panic—there’s still a good foundation to build upon.