From 1950, when it was the nation’s 9th largest city, DC has fared better than most of the then 12 largest cities
The Census Bureau has estimated DC’s population at 693,972 as of July 1, 2017. This is the third time DC’s population has been at that level. The first time was in 1941—on the way up to becoming 900,000 (reached in 1943). The second was in 1976—on the way down to a level of 566,000 (reached in 1998). This third time population is rising again, having grown by 127,000 (22.5%) from the 1998 low point.
In 1941 employment growth related to New Deal programs and World War II had attracted many people to the city. Population soon soared to 900,000 but started to decline at the war’s end. Even after losing about 100,000 from the war time peak, DC was the 9th largest city in the nation in 1950 with a population of 802,178.
US population more than doubled from 1950 to 2016, but DC’s declined by 15% over that time, and its rank among cities fell to 21. Measured by percent change in population, however, DC fared better in those 66 years than all but 3 of the 1950 cohort of the top 12 cities.
DC since 1950. The 1970’s knocked DC out of the ranks of the nation’s 12 largest cities. DC held onto the 9th spot in city ranking through 1970 despite population declines in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But the city lost 188,000 people, a 15% decline, in the 1970’s and its rank fell to 15th in 1980. After losing another 65,000, DC was ranked 21st in 2000, and population gains beginning in 2005 were not sufficient to keep the city’s rank from slipping a little further to 24th in 2010. With growth continuing, DC rose to 21st among US cities in 2016, and it is possible that the rise in population that has brought it to the 694,000 mark for the third time in its history may lead to higher relative city ranking as well.
The 1950 cohort of top cities 66 years later. Much has happened since 1950, but DC has actually fared better than most of the top dozen cities of that year.
- As a group, these dozen cities lost 1.9 million people, 8.1% of their population, and the share of the nation’s population living in them went from 15.4% in 1950 to 6.6% in 2016.
- Of the top 12 cities of 1950, 9 lost population. Only New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco grew.
- Only four of the cities remain in the top dozen: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
- The 121,008 decline in DC’s population was the least of all 9 cities that lost population. Detroit lost the most (1,176,773).
- The 15.1% decline in DC’s population was also the least of the 9 cities that lost population. Four cities lost 50% or more of their population: Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.
Many long time residents of Washington DC are conscious of local developments that have contributed to population declines over the years including such things as urban renewal, flight to the suburbs, public safety concerns, quality of city services, and bankruptcy of the city government. However, all of the large cities of 1950 were affected by enormous changes in the US economy. Industries changed and population shifted to southern and western locations. It is noteworthy that DC’s loss in population in this changing world was less than for most of the1950 cohort cities. Being the nation’s capital, the location of substantial federal government employment and procurement spending, seems to have provided DC with an important measure of stability. Once again passing the 694,000 milestone in 2017—this time going up—shows that the city is still able to attract jobs and people in today’s continuously evolving economy.
The newcomer cities. As noted above, only four of 1950’s top cities are still among the dozen largest in the US. The departing 8 cities, all from the East and Midwest have been replaced by four from Texas, two from California, and one each from Arizona and Florida. Taken together, the newcomer cities increased by 8.7 million, a 375% gain. The largest gain, however, was Los Angeles, not a newcomer, which added 2.0 million and doubled in size. The biggest percentage gain was Phoenix at 1,412%.
In 2016 the top dozen cities accounted for 8.6% of the US population, a share close to half as much as the share (15.4%) the top 12 cities had in 1950. Of the increase in US population from 1950 to 2016, just 5.8% occurred in the nation’s top dozen cities. Traditional big-city boundaries seem thus to have diminished somewhat in relative importance even as the nation has continued to urbanize.
About the data.
This is the second of three blogs about DC population based on the US Census Bureau estimate of DC population in 2017 released in December 2017.
The population data for the District of Columbia, other US cities, and the US is from the US Bureau of the Census. The data is for incorporated cities and not for the metropolitan areas of which they are a part. Annual data back to 1939 is accessed from Moody’s Analytics. Data for city rankings is accessed from the website https://www.biggestuscities.com. In the city ranking tables, 2016 data for DC do not reflect the revision made in December to that year by the Bureau of the Census.
A version of this blog first appeared in the January 2018 District of Columbia Economic and Revenue Trend report issued by the District of Columbia Office of Revenue Analysis, a component of the District of Columbia Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
This blog was revised on March 22 to clarify that the graph on p. 1 was population only.