The Successful, the Stable, and the Struggling Midwest Cities


The Midwest has a deserved reputation as a place that has largely failed to adapt to the globalized world. For example, no Midwestern city would qualify as a boomtown but still there remain a diversity of outcomes in how the region’s cities have dealt with their shared heritage and challenges. Some places are faring surprisingly well, outpacing even the national average in many measures, while others bring up the bottom of the league tables in multiple civics measures.

Let us examine the health of various cities, using population growth as a heuristic proxy for overall civic health. Looking at population change from 2000 to 2008, we will classify a city as "successful" if its metro area population growth exceeded the national average growth rate of 8% during that period, as "stable" if it had a population growth rate between 3% and 8%, and as "struggling" if its growth was less than 3%. Let us also put Chicago into its own category of "global city". It is simply one of a kind in the Midwest, a colossus of nearly 10 million people, and not easily measured against the other cities. Indeed, it is really three cities in one, a prosperous urban core, an archipelago of successful upscale suburbs and edge based growth to the west and north, with a sea of deteriorating city neighborhoods and stagnant to declining suburbs surrounding them. On our scale, Chicago would be "stable" – its inner core has grown but the city overall has lost population, while the outer ring has grown strongly. As a region, it has grown somewhat below the national average.

Here are the results of our tiering, including all cities in the Midwest* with metro areas exceeding 500,000 in population:

Global City
Chicago (5.2%)

Successful Cities
Des Moines (15.6%)
Indianapolis (12.5%)
Madison (11.9%)
Columbus (9.9%)
Kansas City (9.0%)
Minneapolis-St. Paul (8.8%)

Stable Cities
Cincinnati (7.2%)
Grand Rapids (4.9%)
St. Louis (4.4%)
Milwaukee (3.2%)

Struggling Cities
Akron (0.5%)
Detroit (-0.6%)
Dayton (-1.4%)
Toledo (-1.5%)
Cleveland (-2.8%)
Youngstown (-6.1%)

These tiers, based only on a single criterion and arbitrary boundaries, nevertheless basically conform to how these cities are performing both economically and in terms of perceptions.

A few interesting things emerge:

  1. There are a surprisingly large number of Midwestern cities that are growing faster than the US average population. This indicates pockets of strength, in its larger metros at least, seldom associated with the Midwest.
  2. The clear dominance of the successful list by state capitals. This is so pronounced that I have put forth what I call the "Urbanophile Conjecture", which is that if you want to be a successful Midwestern city, it helps to be a state capital with a metro area population of over 500,000. The only successful city on the list that is not a state capital is Kansas City.
  3. The 500,000 barrier seems to be important as well. The state capitals below that threshold - Lansing, Springfield, and Jefferson City – would not qualify as successful on this list. Note too that the presence or absence of the major state university does not appear to be a decisive factor. Des Moines and Indianapolis are not home to their states' flagship universities. The home of the academic powerhouse that is the University of Michigan is the Ann Arbor metro area, which was not included in this list because its population is only about 350,000. Notwithstanding, its growth rate would have put it into the stable category.
  4. In a region in which there is such divergence between the performance of cities, a diversity of city specific policies are required. There is no one size fits all for the Midwest. There may indeed be a base of pan-Midwest policies worth pursuing – improvements in education, attractiveness to migrants, better conditions for innovative entrepreneurship, etc – but successful approaches will be those most tailored to uniquely local conditions. For example, a state capital or University town may have different needs than a place that has neither.

Some suggested areas to investigate by city tier are:

  • Chicago. How can it ease the gap between the thriving global city of Chicago – largely located around the Loop as well as the northern and western suburbs – and the parts of the region that are falling behind, largely the western city neighborhoods and southern edge of metropolis? How do you do this without sacrificing its overall competitiveness? Can the policies appropriate to each be reconciled?
  • Successful Cities. Their policy focus should be on maintaining favorable demographic and economic conditions, and dealing with decaying areas of their urban cores and the potential for decay in some inner ring suburbs. Should the civic aspiration be desirous of it, tuning the engine to attempt to shift the growth rate into high gear to target a profile closer to the Sunbelt boomtowns would be a further focus area. Each city would need to examine which specific policy levers it could pull to attempt to do this. Clearly modernizing and expanding infrastructure to keep up with growth in these places and maintain their high quality of life is a clear imperative.
  • Stable Cities. Their challenge is to bring growth rates up to average or above average levels. It would be worthwhile for them to study the successful areas, and ask what policies and approaches might be adopted. Kansas City offers the best encouragement here. It has managed to maintain a strong growth rate despite not being a state capital and being part of a bi-state metro region. Kansas City features lows costs, high quality of life, a relatively stable housing marketing, and a pro-business culture. It is clearly a standout and worthy of further study for that reason. It may hold the key for moving the stable cities up into the successful tier. Geographically, it is notable that Kansas City is a border state on the far edge of the Midwest, and could arguably be called a Great Plains city. Is that a factor? Some type of peer city comparison with the successful cities, and especially Kansas City, might be warranted here.
  • Struggling Cities. Unfortunately, there isn't a magic bullet to solve the long festering problems in these places. All of them were heavily industrialized and have borne the brunt of globalization, particularly in manufacturing. This is especially the case in cities linked to the domestic automobile industry, which is clearly in a state of crisis. Until the automobile industry completes its restructuring, and out migration right sizes some of these areas, there does not seem to be a clear path to restart growth. Youngstown, which brings up the bottom of our league table, perhaps offers the best road forward. It is trying to right-size itself to a permanently smaller, but more sustainable, future population based on an aggressive controlled shrinkage plan that has received extensive national notice. This type of plan is likely something all of these cities need to be actively considering as the large fixed costs support a population base that no longer exists will become increasingly unaffordable as the population further shrinks. These cities likely also will need special state and federal help to back this shrinkage plan.

* The Midwest is defined as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

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Government employment, potential rebound in manufacturing

Does the relative growth of public sector employment and its stability explain the impact of state capitals in these results? If so, what does it say about the future of Washington DC compared to other global cities in the United States? More stable even than state employment, I expect that Washington will be among those cities least affected (by growth and wealth measures) in the current economic environment because its public sector employment will be the last to be touched, if it is reduced at all.

The author writes "All of them were heavily industrialized and have borne the brunt of globalization, particularly in manufacturing. This is especially the case in cities linked to the domestic automobile industry, which is clearly in a state of crisis."

In recent decades the United States has borrowed in order to consume products produced elsewhere, creating service sector jobs (and great trade deficits) in the process. As this borrowing ends, either through credit constraints or falling purchasing power of the US dollar, why wouldn't these midwest cities be best positioned to capitalize on the re-industrialization of the United States? The skill sets and infrastructure still exist in these regions, despite some need to update both. I suspect that the relative decline of this region is at an end, even if population measures to not fully capture their future today.

puzzling, if you look at the

puzzling, if you look at the figures, apart from recessions such as the present, industrial production in the United States has continued to increase over time. We are still the world's largest manufacturer. The problem is not that we don't make things, but rather that this activity no longer requires the large volumes of unskilled labor at good wages that it previously did.

Clearly, DC is a standout, and federal employment is a big reason why. Government employment is a dynamic with two edges. It is more stable, but also tends to rob economies of their animating force. When bureaucratic service becomes a more attractive option than a private sector career or entrepreneurship, you end up with something like France, where the population dreams of being fonctionnaires. I don't believe excessive public sector employment to be a long term positive.

Manufacturing competencies

Aaron, thank you for the reply.

I agree that the United States is the largest manufacturer, although I have seen projections that China could overtake the US by about 2016. More importantly, I believe the things the US manufactures (planes, cars, pharmaceuticals, weapons) will see diminished demand for several reasons. First, items like cars and planes have already seen sharply reduced demand as US consumer spending falls with declining incomes, rising unemployment, vanishing stock and housing "wealth", and eliminated credit. Second, the increasing role of the government in health care will severely limit innovation in pharmaceuticals and shift consumption to older, generic drugs. Third, the US will eventually be unable to afford the massive spending on weaponry that has been the hallmark if its global adventures in recent decades.

Contrasting the US manufacturing to China, we find that China is focused on more basic consumer goods including clothing / textiles, furniture, computer equipment and appliances. These now account for a major part of the one third of the Chinese economy that is engaged in manufacturing. That compares to 18% in the US, I believe. For the US to secure a stable future in manufacturing I would like to see evidence that more of these basic goods become produced here. Wages may have to continue to adjust in the US for this to happen.

Back to Washington DC, I strongly agree that government employment effectively amounts to a taking from more productive areas of the economy. This effect will be exaggerated further in the coming years as claims of stimulus need and an expanded role for government programs result in further public sector employment. Because the federal government has the greatest ability to borrow and has the authority to aggregate power to itself, I think Washington DC will become uniquely cushioned from economic forces affecting other cities. To a retailer or service provider, development in the DC market may be one of the few remaining growth opportunities until the US comes out of a prolonged recession. This becomes the "super-sized" version of the state capital effect that was explored in the article.

Critical moment for Chicago

Interesting post. As a Chicagoan, I'd say the critical question right now is whether our heavy tax burdens (growing state, county and city/local taxes) will crush future growth. Mayor Daley is the only successful politician in the state right now. Not sure he can ensure Chicago's future in the face of corruption (including his own administration's) and incompetence on so many levels. Right now all he cares about is getting the Olympics. Not sure that is a winner of a strategy for next 10 years.


Your single tiering mechanism captured this very well.

The state capital trends have been discussed for a couple of decade,especially in Ohio.

The struggling cities are a generation away from stabilizing, at least. That is very pessimistic, sad but true.

Rusty Rustbelt

Thank you for the comments

Thank you for the comments everyone. The article clearly said "metro areas"

I consider places like Kansas and Nebraska Great Plains, not Midwest. The dynamic may be different there as these states do not share the history of say Ohio and Michigan. I was trying to look at the dynamics of a region.

Neverthless, Wichita would be Stable - not a state capital.

Omaha is not a state capital bus would be Successful. The state capital is only about 50-60 miles away. Not sure if that makes a difference.

Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see how the analysis holds up nationally. Easy to do with the Census files.


Why not include Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas? Those are typically classified as the Midwest (see the Census definitions), and this would give you more data points.

Well, ND for one

doesn't have any large (pop > 500K) cities.

Fargo - 92,660 (source Wikipedia)

South Dakota
Sioux Falls - 152,396

Wichita - 354,865

Omaha - 414,521

Dave Barnes


I thought that Omaha's metropolitan area was close to a million, while Wichita's was near 600K.

Now, I am not sure.

You are pointing out why the author should have been more precise.

For example, has a number of measures of population. The wiki article mentions both a Detroit Urban Area and an MSA. Each has a population near 4M.

"Wichita's population was estimated to be 357,698 in the year 2006" and "The Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area...estimated population of 596,452"

"As of the census[2] of 2000, there are 390,007 people, 156,738 households, and 94,983 families residing within city limits.",_Nebraska
and, then we have
"Metropolitan Area Residents 2000: 716,998"

I think the author meant "within city limits", but certainly should have been more precise. I do agree that including Wichita and Omaha would have been useful. Fargo is still off the table though.