Do Population Trends Doom Our Cities?

Our most populated cities, says the 2010 Census, are Jackson, Gulfport, Southaven, Hattiesburg, Biloxi, Meridian, Tupelo, and Greenville. While Southaven leaped from eighth to third with 68% growth since 2000, four had significant population declines – Greenville -17%, Biloxi -13%, Jackson -6%, and Gulfport -5%. The others barely held even.

Concerned about Tupelo’s trends, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal Editor Lloyd Gray wrote, “Who’s remaining in the cities that are losing population? Minorities, primarily, and a disproportionate number of low-income people.”

Indeed, the Census shows all eight cities experienced increased minority population. The whitest city, Southaven, saw non-white population grow from 9% to 28%. The least white, Jackson and Greenville, saw non-white population grow from 72% and 71%, respectively, to 81% and 82%. Tupelo shifted from 30% non-white to 40%; Hattiesburg 50% to 58%; Meridian 56% to 64%; Gulfport 37% to 42%; and Biloxi 27% to 29%.

This phenomenon results, Gray said, from “primarily white, middle class and affluent people who are either moving out (of) or deciding against moving into areas they regard as less desirable.” He noted that Jackson “is now about 80 percent African-American, its income levels dropping, and its disparities between the poor and remaining affluent widening.”

There should be no doubt that race plays a key role. But, so too do tax levels, school ratings, building codes, property values, and crime rates.

In 2001, after 2000 Census figures showed Meridian losing significant population, The Riley Foundation funded a citizen-led effort called the “Grow Meridian Team” to develop strategies to turn that decline around. Noting that, “none have found a simple, magic formula to reverse such trends,” the team worked with the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University to develop 13 growth strategies.

The gist of these strategies was to make the city more of a magnet for attracting residents than repelling them. After all, why should anyone choose to live in a city if a similar or higher quality of life can be had for less cost or consternation outside the city?

Turns out remaking cities into attracting magnets is easier said than done.

None of the Grow Meridian Team recommendations got implemented to any noticeable degree. Meridian used contentious annexation to achieve slight growth by 2010, though white flight continued unabated. Decades long efforts in Greenville and Jackson have also failed to turn trends around.

The great urban revitalizer John Gardner said the challenges of contemporary life erode and tear apart communities so “we can never stop rebuilding.” Census data indicates many of us in Mississippi prefer to flee rather than stay and rebuild.

Perhaps our state leadership prefers this. The Legislature has given cities few tools to implement growth or rebuilding strategies.

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