New Census estimates find Milwaukee's population is still declining, even as other Midwest cities rebound

NOW: New Census estimates find Milwaukee’s population is still declining, even as other Midwest cities rebound

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee is even further from Mayor Cavalier Johnson's stated goal of reaching one million residents, according to new estimates released this month by the United States Census Bureau.

The municipal-level data estimate a community's population as of July 2023, and they then compare those population numbers to the 2020 Census and the July 2022 estimate.

The most recent estimate found Milwaukee has lost 16,508 residents since the 2020 Census, a 2.9% decline. While most of those losses happened in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau estimates Milwaukee's population dropped by 2,247 between July 2022 and July 2023.

Milwaukee's population was just short of 578,000 at the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Subcounty Estimates pegged Milwaukee's current population at a little more than 561,000.

John Johnson, a research fellow at Marquette University, analyzed the Census data to break down whether a population shift occurred because of birthrate changes, migration or both. In Milwaukee's case, births outnumbered deaths, but that was offset by the number of people moving out of the city.

"Well, it's not good," John Johnson said. "You know, it's a good thing people are having kids here, starting families, but we have a lot of trouble retaining them."

When asked about the population numbers at an event Wednesday introducing a new Adopt-a-Neighborhood pilot program, Mayor Johnson noted the most recent Census numbers are estimates. The Census Bureau's methodology is based largely on the number of housing units in a community.

The mayor also pointed out the rate of decline had slowed compared to 2021.

"Even if the estimate were to be accurate, you have to slow outward migration," Mayor Johnson said. "You have to slow some of the population losses before you can increase."

However, Milwaukee still lost people between 2022 and 2023. A pair of other major cities in the Upper Midwest, Detroit and Minneapolis, gained residents over the same one-year period. John Johnson also noted the 0.4% population decline in Milwaukee was worse than the city's average annual decline in the years leading up to the pandemic.

"It's still a faster pace of decline than we saw in the 2010s," he said.

When asked what the city could do to reverse the trend of losing residents via migration, Mayor Johnson said continuing road infrastructure improvements would help.

"Not just the changes to the streets to combat reckless driving, but the work that we're doing proactively to build protected bicycle lanes throughout the city of Milwaukee," he said.

A CBS 58 reporter then asked the mayor about the role of schools and whether the recent federal decision to suspend Milwaukee Public Schools' Head Start funding for 30 days amid a series of safety incidents makes the city less attractive to families.

"Whether it's Milwaukee Public Schools, whether it's charter schools, whether it's privates, it's of concern to any person with children that wants to locate in any community," the mayor said. "Yes, those are things that makes you consider [where to live], and these are things that any other community that wants to attract families should be considering as well."

Mayor Johnson also noted violent crimes, namely homicides and non-fatal shootings, have declined from 2023's year-to-date numbers, according to Milwaukee Police Department data - 2023 brought a decline in violent crime after Milwaukee set new homicide records for three consecutive years between 2020 and 2022.

"Not to say we don't have issues that need to be addressed. We do," he said. "We are addressing those things, but it's those things that help to make Milwaukee a safer place, a better place that I think people will choose to live in."

The politics of population

John Johnson said the population shifts over the three-year and one-year periods don't follow any one geographic or political theme. While Milwaukee and Chicago both suffered population losses, Madison and the region around Minneapolis-St. Paul saw gains via both positive birthrate and migration.

Rural counties in both Illinois and Iowa sustained significant population losses, in many cases due to the double blow of both deaths outnumbering births and negative net migration. Yet, northern Wisconsin counties largely saw population increases, as did much of the Fox Valley and the mid-sized cities of Eau Claire, La Crosse and Wausau.

"I think we give politicians and state policies too much credit, both for good and ill, in saying that they can drive these population changes," John Johnson said. "To me, looking at these patterns, it's clearly much more complicated than that because you can find examples of rural growth and rural decline, under Democratic rule or Republican rule alike, and the same thing in cities."

Johnson added one helpful step Milwaukee leaders are pursuing is a zoning overhaul that would allow for more "middle" apartment buildings, such as duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.

As for why northern Wisconsin was experiencing growth while rural areas in other Midwest states declined, Johnson noted the natural amenities of the Northwoods. Perhaps, the growth of remote work coming out of the pandemic enabled more people to make the Northwoods their full-time home.

"It could be people who have wanted to make that move for a long time, but their job might not have allowed remote work until 2020," he said. 

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