Delta flyers know this sight all too well.

Is Detroit Making a Comeback?

It’s All About That Baseline

When your expectations are low enough, anything can look like a win. That’s the story of Detroit today.

Urbanist/demographics/regional economics twitter has a long-running, let’s say conversation about Detroit: want went wrong? how do we fix it? what does the future hold? I tend to me on team “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Saving Detroit is likely to be extremely costly while still holding a high risk of failure, in my opinion. But this view is predicated on a certain perspective of what it means to succeed. To some, success means population decline stops. To some, success means fewer empty buildings. To some, success means balanced municipal finances. To some, success means increasing employment. To me, I tend to think success means that huge population outflows will stop, and that population will begin to rise. Others may espouse other views, but I tend to think a locality’s ability to provide prosperity only matters in a general equilibrium framework, so a place that makes locals rich by culling the herd of non-rich locals is not “succeeding.” Success means that you offer prosperity to a rising share of the general population.

So, is Detroit making a comeback? A recent article suggests that while there is indeed some kind of economic or demographic comeback, it’s not really raising quality of life. Maybe. I’ll look at the actual demographic comeback evidence in this post. Let’s look at some basic population data.

Detroit Is Still Declining

The above graph shows population in Detroit, the remainder of Wayne County, and the rest of the metro area. As you can see, Detroit’s population decline is continuing apace as recently as 2015. The remainder of Wayne County is stagnant. Other metro counties are growing, but at a fairly low rate. Thus, in raw numbers, it’s hard to make any case for a Detroit comeback: insofar as a comeback does exist, it is concentrated in the outer counties and suburbs, while Detroit proper continues its slide downwards.

But what if we looked at this another way? Here’s those same 3 areas, expressed as a ratio to population in the rest of the state; so Detroit vs. Michigan Except Detroit Metro Area, or (Wayne County Less Detroit) vs. (Michigan Less Detroit Metro Area), etc.

This dataset remains meaningful back to at least 1850. There, we can see that Detroit’s population was most dominant in 1930, declined slowly to 1950, then basically fell off a cliff after that. Detroit’s ratio to the ex-Detroit-Metro state population continues to fall. The remainder of Wayne County peaked from 1960 to 1972, but has fallen gradually since. Finally, the remainder of the metro area saw fast relative growth until 1970, and slower growth since then. But here, again, we can see that, despite slow recent growth in Michigan generally, Detroit (and Wayne County!) is underperforming the rest of the state, although the non-Wayne-County suburbs seem to be outperforming the state on the whole!

We can also look at growth rates for each of these geographies.

As you can see, Detroit has been persistently negative. However, here we can see the first inklings of a Detroit comeback: from its worst population growth rates ever in 2008, to one of its better years in the whole postwar period in 2015, there’s been a sharp uptick in growth rates, even as growth in the rest of the metro and state has risen far more moderately, if at all. Now, true, growth remains negative, but far less so.

So, what’s driving that change in growth?

Detroit’s Migration Is Improving

Using ACS data, we can look at recent patterns in Detroit migration. Here’s total net migration, with error bands included, showing the range of possible estimates from the ACS. We’ll start with gross flows:

There are a ton of lines showing there. I do that to communicate as clearly as possible that we are talking about estimates here! There is room for error! We can’t be too precise, and shouldn’t read too much into a given year.

But, whatever errors we may see, the broad trend in this case is fairly clear. Outflows have been declining somewhat, while inflows seem to have been rising. This is definitely a good sign. Now, no matter what error specification you choose, net migration is still positive. So if you think the best estimate of outflows is the lowest estimate possible given the ACS error band, and if you think the best estimate of inflows is the highest possible… it’s still negative net migration!

Here’s the range of estimates for net migration:

Like I said: getting to positive net migration requires you to believe that the ACS is really systematically wrong here.

Nonetheless, what virtually all specifications show is improving net migration! Yes, it’s negative, but it’s not nearly as negative. So it seems like Detroit’s population growth has been improving because of migration!

Who’s migrating in?

Well, age-specific migration rates are extremely volatile. But inflows do seem to be up the most in percentage terms for people over the age of 60! The next biggest inflow group improvement in percentage terms is 20–34 year olds. However, while annual inflows of 60+ folks have risen between 300 and 400 people per year, inflows of 20–34 year olds have risen by between 1,300 and 1,800 people per year: so a much larger absolute increase.

However, outflows of 60+ individuals have risen even more sharply, by between 500 and 1000 people per year. Outflows of under-20s, meanwhile, have fallen from around 12,000–20,000 per year, to about 7,000–11,000 per year: a huge fall. And while that age group has declined as a total share of the population, the gross outflow rate has fallen precipitously, from about 6–7% to about 3–5%.

Now, let’s be clear: this declining youth outmigration may be good if Detroit is offering improved amenities and opportunities for young people and families. Or, it may be bad, if Detroit is offering worse educational opportunities, diminishing the ability of, for example, college-age kids to get into schools elsewhere. However, this does not appear to be the driving force: rather, outflows of kids ages 5–17 have driven most of the change.

I should say here, the data I’m citing is intercounty and interstate migration. I’ve excluded intra-county migration because it is extremely high volume and can swamp these other trends, because the net share of that volume is comparatively low, because it is sensitive to boundary changes, and because, ultimately, it doesn’t change the key story about direction. It may, however, change the key story about totals. The chart below shows net migration totals for each error-band pairing with intracounty migration included.

As you can see, if we take the very most aggressively positive estimates of migration it becomes possible that net migration into Detroit city may be positive, driven by relocations from Wayne County, which could explain weak recent Wayne County population growth.

Now, all that said, the other reason I wanted to focus on longer-range migration is because (1) it has different determinants and (2) it has more corroborating datasets. Specifically, for county-level migration, we can look at Census Population Estimates. Here’s Wayne County components of population change from 2000–2015 (Census doesn’t produce sub-county migration estimates, so this is Wayne Co total, not just Detroit):

The first thing you notice is, of course, that major turnaround in net domestic migration. Wowza!

Then you may notice that net international migration is rising! Woooo! Except, bad news guys, some of that rise is almost certain to be reversed by the 2016 data revisions we’ll get in March I believe it is.

But perhaps most impressive is the stabilized natural rate of increase. Births in Detroit are rising ever so slightly even as population falls, while deaths are stable now. This is really good news, and suggests migration may be having a pro-fertility effect on Detroit as inflows seem to be a population that may have more kids! We’ll see if this effect persists as it is very recent and still fairly small. But, if it does, it’s a very good sign for Detroit in the longer term.


Detroit’s population growth remains negative, and is weak even compared to other places around Michigan. This should be at the front of any discussion of Detroit: population is still declining. There has been no turnaround. However, the rate of decline is slowing, which suggests that something is going more right than in the past. The sharp uptick in population growth is extremely good news and, while we shouldn’t break out the confetti just yet, it’s worth having some cautious optimism. This improvement in growth has been driven by young people and young families, who in turn are having more babies. If families put down roots, that’s a very good sign for the city’s future.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.