Honey, I Shrunk the City
It’s not exactly news that the City of St. Louis and the region as a whole have been losing population for decades. But it’s still jarring to read paragraphs like these from a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch story:
The number of people who live in the city of St. Louis fell below 300,000 in 2021 and the metropolitan area also saw a decline in population as the region for the first time recorded more deaths than births. That puts it among just a handful of large urban areas hit by outmigration and a negative birth rate. . . .
As of July 1, the Census Bureau estimated that just 293,310 people resided in the region’s core city of St. Louis, down from the 301,578 people counted in the 2020 census.
St. Louis City had a population of more than 850,000 in the 1950 census. That means today’s population is about a third of what it once was. Deaths outpacing births for the first time in recorded history does not seem like great news, either.
Not all of this is the fault of the city’s leadership. Structural factors are certainly at play here; there are many reasons St. Louis’s population has been in precipitous freefall for more than half a century. And COVID deaths across the country did depress population gains. But that does not mean decline is inevitable.
As noted in the Post-Dispatch article, several peer cities in the Midwest, including Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, experienced population increases over this period. Those cities have many similarities to St. Louis. And St. Louis retains many key advantages, including its central location as a transportation hub and a low cost of living. To quote the late Charles Krauthammer: Decline is a choice.
So what now? A few quotes from the Post-Dispatch article hint at one possible way forward:
The numbers drew another call from the St. Louis metro’s new business and civic booster group for regional unity and a redoubling of efforts by area leaders to draw residents and focus on “inclusive economic growth.” . . .
“At the start of last year, we established Greater St. Louis Inc. out of the core belief that growth must be a top civic priority for the St. Louis metro,” said Greater St. Louis Inc. CEO Jason Hall. “These numbers tell us what we expected and underscore the urgency of focusing this metro on growth and more opportunities for all. Stagnation is the existential threat to everything we love about the place we call home.”
I’m not exactly certain what “inclusive growth” means—I would think that a region that has been hemorrhaging population since the Eisenhower administration should just be focusing on any growth, absent qualifiers. I am not mentioning this phrase just to be snarky, but instead because it is indicative of how St. Louis leaders have approached this problem.
Greater St. Louis, to much fanfare, introduced a plan at the end of 2020 (revised and improved in early 2021, but without significant changes) that was intended to fix what ailed the St. Louis region. Show-Me Institute analysts pointed out the inadequacies of that plan at the time. One of the major problems with the report is that it’s long on buzzwords and jargon like “inclusive growth” and short on actual concrete policy prescriptions or solutions.
I don’t want to belabor the shortcomings of this one report from two years ago. But that report illustrates how many civic leaders in the St. Louis region think, and it represents a well-trod path: Use taxpayer dollars to bribe companies to move here, use even more taxpayer dollars to pay for splashy but economically dubious projects like aquariums or soccer stadiums or trolleys, and bend to the whims and demands of social justice activists when making key decisions.
It’s not that hard to think of a better way to try and make St. Louis a more attractive place to live and work. St. Louis City still has an economically destructive earnings tax. The city also has massive problems with crime. The city could also focus on reducing regulations to improve its ease-of-doing-business rankings. The region as a whole could stop giving away tax subsidies at every available opportunity and use some of that money to fund critical public services or cut taxes.
It would be easy to keep listing examples of what the St. Louis region could or should be doing. But maybe the best argument for trying something else is a simple one: The old approach is what got St. Louis into its current atrophied state. If we keep trying the same things, why would anyone expect things to change?