According to the United States Census Bureau, more than 300 million people live in the U.S. However, those hundreds of millions of residents are not evenly spread throughout the 50 states. In fact, American political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute Norman Ornstein predicts that 70% of Americans will live in 15 states by about 2040, an estimate that seems about in line with census data projections.
We can’t foresee the future, but we do know that people are moving away from places that once drew new residents every year. Census reports show that the populations of certain cities of nearly every size and across the country are on the decline.
Here are some of the cities people are moving away from, as well as possible reasons for these migrations.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Los Angeles Country is the largest county in the United States; it’s the most populous county in the United States. We regret the error.
In 1764, St. Louis was established as the site of a fur-trading post. In the early 19th century, people from the East Coast began to settle there, and by the 1890s, it was the fourth-largest city in the United States. In recent years, however, it has fallen out of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the nation and continues to decrease in population. A loss of manufacturing jobs, as well as offshoring and racial strife, are often blamed for people leaving the city — despite the success of sports team like the Blues, who won the Stanley Cup in 2019.
Honolulu is the largest city in the state of Hawaii. However, the population of Honolulu has declined steadily over the past several years. Although unemployment is low and the labor market is strong, the high cost of living seems to be the catalyst for the drop.
First settled by the French in 1701, Detroit became a village in 1802. By the start of the 20th century, it was the hub of the automobile manufacturing industry. Once the fourth-largest city in the nation, Detroit has lost a great deal of its population due to a downturn in the auto industry, a high unemployment rate and the high rate of violent crime — despite the fact that in recent years the birthplace of Motown has started to attract creative young people intent on rehabilitating downtown.
Casper began as a rough-and-tumble railroad town in the late 1800s. It became a thriving city thanks to oil and, later, coalbed methane drilling. However, the entire state of Wyoming has seen recent population declines, with Casper at the forefront. Experts blame this on downticks in the coal, oil and natural gas sectors.
In the late 1700s, the Connecticut Land Company named its first settlement founded in the Connecticut Western Reserve after General Moses Cleaveland, who was an investor that led the survey of the area. In 1831, the local newspaper used the spelling Cleveland to save space on the masthead and everyone else followed suit. The city still attracts tourists (like Instagram user @julieknailsnyc, pictured), but the area continues to see significant population decline due to economic hardship.
French settlers built Fort Presque Isle in 1753 in the region named after the indigenous native Erie people. In the 1800s, Erie became a significant port and manufacturing center. Despite a lovely Lake Erie lakefront, when the manufacturing industry declined in Erie, so did the city’s population.
Enticed by the fertile land, English colonists settled in Hartford in 1635. Although people have called the area home for centuries, they are currently leaving Hartford and other Connecticut cities by the hundreds — despite the state’s colleges and universities, and their successful sports teams, remaining a draw. High taxes, job opportunities elsewhere and even the desire to retire in a balmier climate are the driving factors behind this exodus.
Buffalo, New York
Originally named New Amsterdam, the city of Buffalo was a bustling town of about 1,500 at the time of the War of 1812. Its location made it a major port of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a stop in the New York State Canal System and a major rail center, increasing its appeal for numerous industries. However, the western New York city has experienced a significant population decline in recent years. Local government is striving to attract more residents with development and job creation.
Although it is Connecticut’s most populous city, Bridgeport is losing inhabitants along with other cities in the state experiencing population decline. The governor has stated that 80 people leave the state every day, and experts blame Connecticut’s high taxes (even though the state doesn’t even rank in the top 10 of highest-taxed states). Even the city’s Atlantic League of Professional Baseball team, the Bridgeport Bluefish, pulled the plug in 2019.
Although the land was settled by native peoples long before, gold seekers and early settlers named the city for Indiana Senator Charles W. Fairbanks near the turn of the 20th century. Now, along with numerous other cities in the 49th state, Fairbanks is experiencing a decrease in population. A lack of jobs and limited affordable housing options are thought to be the cause.
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Pine Bluff is located on the banks of the Arkansas River. Starting as a village of around 50 residents in the early 1800s, Pine Bluff has grown to become one of the state’s largest cities. In the past decade, however, Pine Bluff has lost thousands of residents. Experts report that young adults are moving to more urban areas.
Although it is known as both the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, Memphis is declining in population. In fact, tens of thousands of residents have moved away in recent years. Local experts believe Memphis should focus on bringing in more tech jobs and improving the city’s infrastructure to attract more people.
Fresno has the nickname of Best Little City in the U.S.A. despite being one of the largest cities in California. That said, thousands of former residents have made their homes elsewhere during the past several years. Although no single reason for the exodus has been named, Fresno has been named the nation’s 10th-worst city for African Americans and has topped the list for worst pollution in the state — despite the city being surrounded by natural attractions such as lakes and several National Parks.
Wheeling, West Virginia
Established in 1795, Wheeling was West Virginia’s first capital. Industries from iron and steel mills to glassworks and cigar factories made Wheeling a thriving city. But recent data shows that the city’s population is decreasing. Lower demand for manufacturing jobs is thought to be the cause.
The city of Portland was incorporated in 1851. Since then, it has gained numerous enticing nicknames, such as the City of Roses, Beervana and Bridge City. The population of Portland has declined only recently. Experts report that a high cost of living is at the heart of this change.
Even after “The Great Fire” destroyed a third of the city in 1871, leaving more than 100,000 residents homeless, Chicago grew to be a city of innovation and culture. But for the fourth consecutive year, data shows that the population of Chicago is declining. Former residents have listed various reasons for leaving, from the weather to high taxes to the cost of living.
Rochester, New York
A 96-foot waterfall in the center of the city made Rochester an ideal place for flour mills, and the fertile soil helped it become an agricultural center. These days, though, Rochester is high on the list of cities losing its population. Local experts suggest factors such as the weather, high taxes, the economy and politics as reasons for residents’ departures.
Established in 1729, Baltimore is Maryland’s largest city and the home of the Preakness Stakes, along with other cultural and artistic events throughout the year. Initially a bustling seaport, Baltimore became a major automobile-shipping port. Since 2015, the population of the city has dipped. High taxes, crime and a lackluster education system are to blame.
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While other areas in the Grand Canyon State have experienced growth, the border town of Nogales is losing residents. Named for the walnut trees that were once abundant in the area, Nogales (“nogal” translates to walnut tree) has been home to a substantial population for centuries. Although a pleasant town boasting naturally beautiful sites such as the Patagonia Lake State Park, the area’s high unemployment rate is driving residents to larger cities such as Phoenix and Tucson.
Birmingham was built around the iron and steel industry. As the industry declined, so did the population of the area. In fact, not only has Jefferson County, of which Birmingham is the seat, lost thousands of residents in the past decade, but the state of Alabama as a whole seems to be experiencing a dip in population. Despite its cultural charms — such as the Birmingham Museum of Art — Birmingham is losing residents to larger cities, many in other states.
Farmington, New Mexico
Pioneers from Colorado settled in the area near the end of the 19th century. Farmington flourished as a farming and ranching community throughout the early 1900s and experienced oil and gas booms in later years. From 2010 to 2015, though, it was known as the fastest-shrinking city in the nation. A lack of jobs has been cited as the main reason for the decline.
People have lived in Milwaukee for thousands of years, and it has become the largest city in Wisconsin and known as the headquarters for companies such as Miller Brewing and Harley-Davidson. Since 2015, the population of Milwaukee has been on the decline. Government officials believe young adults are leaving for jobs in the technology sector in other Midwestern cities, such as Chicago, Madison and Indianapolis.
Abundant natural resources and accessible waterways made Pittsburgh the nation’s industrial center early on. However, in recent years, the city’s population has trended downward — despite affordable living costs and plenty of big-city amenities such as successful sports teams. Experts blame a large population of aging residents as well as high unemployment rates on the decline.
DETROIT, MI – JUNE 09: Kevin Wainczak, 22, of Plymouth, Michigan, waits to march alongside other participants during the Motor City Pride Parade on June 9, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Brittany Greeson/Getty Images)
Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the United States, and the city of L.A. is the largest city within the county. However, as the region grows, Los Angeles is shrinking in population. The primary struggles are a lack of affordable housing as well as fewer homes being built overall.
El Paso, Texas
Spanish explorers named the region El Paso del Norte, which translates to the Pass of the North, during the colonial period. The U.S. gained ownership of El Paso following the Mexican-American War. Data shows that the region has lost more than 6% of its population since 2010, which is the largest loss of population among the most populous counties in the state of Texas. Residents leaving the area in search of higher-paying positions is the driving factor behind the loss.