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When World War II ended, Washington, D.C.'s population was about 900,000; today it's about 700,000. In 1950, Baltimore's population was almost 950,000; today it's around 614,000. Detroit's 1950 population was close to 1.85 million; today it's down to 673,000. Camden, N.J.'s 1950 population was nearly 125,000; today it has fallen to 77,000. St. Louis' 1950 population was more than 856,000; today it's less than 309,000.

A similar story of population decline can be found in most of our formerly large and prosperous cities. In some, population declines since 1950 are well over 50 percent. In addition to Detroit and St. Louis, those would include Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

During the 1960s and '70s, academic liberals, civil rights advocates and others blamed the exodus on racism, "white flight" to the suburbs. However, since the '70s, blacks have been fleeing some cities at higher rates than whites. It turns out that blacks, like whites, want better and safer schools for their kids and don't like to be mugged or have their property vandalized. Just like white people, if they have the means, black people can't wait for moving companies to move them out.

At the heart of big-city exoduses is a process I call accumulative decay. When schools are rotten and unsafe, neighborhoods are run-down and unsafe, and city services decline, the first people to leave are those who care the most about good schools and neighborhood amenities and have the resources to move. As a result, cities lose their best and ablest people first.

Those who leave the city for greener pastures tend to be replaced by people who don't care so much about schools and neighborhood amenities or people who do care but don't have the means to move anywhere else. Because the "best" people--those who put more into the city's coffer than they take out in services--leave, politicians must raise taxes and/or permit city services to deteriorate. This sets up the conditions for the next round of people who can do better to leave. Businesses--which depend on these people, either as employees or as customers--also begin to leave.

The typical political response to a declining tax base is to raise taxes even more and hence create incentives for more businesses and residents to leave. There's also mayoral begging for federal and state bailouts. Once started, there is little to stop the city's downward spiral.

Intelligent mayors could prevent, halt and perhaps reverse their city decline by paying more attention to efficiency than equity. That might be politically difficult. Regardless of any other goal, mayors must recognize that their first order of business is to retain what economists call net positive fiscal residue. That's a fancy term for keeping those people in the city who put more into the city's coffers, in the form of taxes, than they take out in services. To do that might require discrimination in the provision of city services--providing better street lighting, greater safety, nicer libraries, better schools and other amenities in more affluent neighborhoods.

As one example, many middle-class families leave cities because of poor school quality. Mayors and others who care about the viability of a city should support school vouchers. That way, parents who stay and put a high premium on the education of their children wouldn't be faced with paying twice--through property taxes and private school tuition--in order for their kids to get a good education. Some might protest that city service discrimination is unfair. I might agree, but it's even more unfair for cities, once the magnets of opportunities for low-income people, to become economic wastelands.

Big cities can be revitalized, but it's going to take mayors with guts to do what's necessary to reverse accumulative decay. They must ensure safe streets and safe schools. They must crack down on not only violent crimes but also petty crimes and misdemeanors such as public urination, graffiti, vandalism, loitering and panhandling.


Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Editorial on 04/19/2018

Print Headline: First things first


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  • drs01
    April 19, 2018 at 7:58 a.m.

    Little Rock is another city you can add to William's list. Although our population is not in the negative column, we have the same perfect storm. A city with minority majority and large "retiree", poor, and homeless population.
    Unfortunately, all our city's "revitalization" is concentrated on a few square blocks downtown near the Clinton city "park".

  • hah406
    April 19, 2018 at 8:21 a.m.

    I am betting you never travel east of University. You have noticed all the development in that corridor, have you not? And the redevelopment downtown isn't just a few blocks around the Clinton library, it is the entire Quapaw Quarter. Houses are being renovated up and down every street from 630 to River Market. New apartment developments all over the place. Brew pubs, new restaurants, new hotels. Oh ya, according to the census bureau, LR is 52% white, so no minority majority.
    Williams talks about rust belt cities declining populations, but many factors drove that. The decline of steel. Automation in manufacturing, and so on. He neglects to mention the exploding populations in the south, like Atlanta, Birmingham, Dallas, Houston, Austin, and others. I wonder why?

  • drs01
    April 19, 2018 at 11:44 a.m.

    I'm betting you don't know me. I was raised in the "hood" that was east of I-40 before it was I-40. I spent more years living and working in this area than you've been alive. Most of my neighbors fought to get out of that area. It became a cesspool. Granted, there is a concerted effort today to "revitalize" that area. Unfortunately, it's the myopic focus of city government leaders, the chamber, and the convention bureau. There are 7 wards in this city, and one really mess of a school district that could use more focus from the city movers and shaker. The population is 46.9% white making this city a minority majority. The cities Williams cited were mostly controlled by liberal democrats, not saying that's the only reason they lost population. Williams' article was about cities losing population, so why would he mention any city experiencing growth?

  • RBear
    April 19, 2018 at 11:46 a.m.

    Yes, I started reading through Williams' column today and realized how out of touch he was with urban development going on across the nation. Just taking a look at several major cities hah mentioned and you can see there is a shift and a change in what's happening in the city. I agree with hah's assessment of rust belt cities, but they realize that also and have started retooling and refocusing their efforts for a more diverse and growing economy.
    With regards to Little Rock, it is changing and in a good way to meet the demands of a different resident. The millennial population is attracted more to urban and midtown living than that of sprawl. They are helping driving the development of an area that stretches from east of I-30 to the river to just north of 12th St to Capitol View.
    That being said, Little Rock does need new leadership to help continue this growth and revitalization. I do agree that we have a city with different segments than NWA, but there's no reason that has to be a limiter. In fact, it can serve as an enabler as you help draw the city together. I've been in a city where things were pulled together by some pretty progressive mayors and the city is now considered one of the fastest growing cities in the nation along with one of the best places to live. You don't ignore the homeless or poor or retired if you want to grow. You work to improve their lives along with everyone else.

  • RBear
    April 19, 2018 at 12:26 p.m.

    Valid point drs. So, let's look at Little Rock a little differently. If the city stays on the current course, based on your assessment, it will become one of those shrinking cities in America. In some ways, I think it already has but it's on the cusp and not fully into a decline. It's at a point of saving. That's why I advocate for new leadership.
    Like I've said, I've been around thoughtful and innovative leadership before, in San Antonio, in Austin, and in Houston. I know what that looks like and how to spot the ideas that create change by action and not word only. I have my own choice for the one who can do that, but you already know that. I can tell you the current leadership couldn't spot innovation if it ran over them. It's FRUSTRATING to even have a conversation with our current mayor. It's like talking to a brick wall.
    Now is the time to avoid Little Rock falling into decline. Now is the time to change the course and hopefully see creative growth that addresses infill without creating gentrification, helps retain talent needed for a new economy, and drives economic revitalization that capitalizes on the resources we have.

  • hah406
    April 19, 2018 at 1:58 p.m.

    First drs01, I trust that you meant somewhere on the east side of LR, like Hanger Hill. It is hard to get to the east side of an east-west highway, which I-40, and for that matter I-30 is. I deduced that you meant east of I-30's North South section through downtown.
    More to my point, I just get tired of you always putting down the good stuff happening in that area now. I am one of the people that isn't scared of the area, and I remember when the only reason to go downtown after dark was for drugs and prostitutes. I have made it my home for over 10 years now, and good things are happening. Yes, there are other wards that also need attention, and the school system has sucked since way before I was born. I don't disagree with any of that. But please don't act like these developments in downtown, Quapaw, even now in east LR aren't good for the city.