Friday, February 5, 2016

When Populations Implode

Click for photo credit.
Much has been written about the late 20th century population shift in North America from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. I was part of that migration when I moved to Florida from Wisconsin in 1990. Throughout much of the 20th century, Florida doubled in population every 20 years. Many of the Rust Belt communities had a very tough time but made it through the demographic and economic transition that occurred. Cities like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis found their footing in the face of Rust Belt transitions.

Then there is Flint, Michigan.

Of course Flint has been in the news a great deal due to the water crisis that occurred over the last two years. I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming post. But in some ways, the situation in Flint is in part caused by this Rust Belt transition and the State of Michigan's reaction to the demographic change.

At one time, Flint was home to General Motors. It housed 80,000 well paying jobs. Now there are about 8000 manufacturing jobs. In the 1960's the city had a prosperous population of about 200,000 people. Now, the population is less than 100,000. Many who were mobile left, leaving behind a significantly poorer and less educated population. The remaining population is more vulnerable than other similar sized communities due to its age, education levels, and economic status.

Any government that goes through depopulation will have significant budget challenges. The tax base does not support the costs of managing government. The infrastructure is too large for the existing community and it is expensive to maintain. Because the remaining population is poorer than other communities, the need for government services is high. Depopulation stresses the ability of local governments to meet the needs of its remaining citizens.

In such settings, there are many strategies that can be employed. In the case of Flint, however, governments made many errors that impacted the city's public health. Perhaps the biggest error made in Michigan was the notion that cities like Flint had poorly run dysfunctional governments that were unable to make sound fiscal decisions to manage their cities. To be clear, these cities could not manage their responsibilities with the tax base in place. If they cut essential services such as public schools or snow plowing, they would be out of compliance with local, state, and federal laws. Local governments in the face of rapidly declining populations cannot manage their needs with existing tax bases. They are not bad fiscal managers. They just cannot manage funds that are not there.

In Michigan, the law allows the governor to assign a fiscal manager to take over city operations when communities are in financial distress. This sounds like a great plan. However, it takes away democratic access by citizens to local government. Thus, when a fiscal manager makes bad decisions, as in the case of the water situation in Flint, local residents do not have access to local officials to demand change. Unfortunately, the fiscal manager is accountable to the governor and not to the local citizens.

When populations implode, it is not the fault of the citizens left behind. Yet they end paying the highest costs in terms of lack of services, tax increases, and in the case of Flint, polluted water. The Michigan model clearly did not work out well for local residents. A new model should be developed that puts greater local control over any outside fiscal manager who tries to assist areas undergoing depopulation.

Leaders in Flint are working hard to promote economic development and encourage growth. In many ways, local leaders are doing great things in the face of unprecedented demographic change. While many hoped that the state appointed fiscal manager would improve the situation in Flint, the net result was the opposite.

We have developed great planning in the United States for how to manage the growth of cities. We need a new paradigm in planning to figure out how best to manage population decline.

No comments: