The city of Youngstown’s unenviable No. 1 national ranking for population loss does not tell the whole story about the decline of the largest community in the Mahoning Valley.
To be sure, the highest percent of population loss among the 729 communities with at least 50,000 residents confirms what this writer and others have long believed about Youngstown: The future is bleak.
But, until the U.S. Census Bureau’s recent revelation that the number of residents in the city now stands at 65,405, down from 66,982 in the 2010 census, it wasn’t clear just how dire the situation has become.
You need to look beyond the Census numbers to understand what lies ahead for Youngstown.
First, the population. A demographic analysis will show that a large percentage of the 65,000-plus residents are on fixed incomes — pensions, Social Security benefits or welfare.
In other words, the income tax revenue the city receives from its 2.75 percent rate is mostly paid by nonresidents working in Youngstown.
Next, the racial makeup of the city. As the number of blacks living in Youngstown begins to outpace whites, the flight to the suburbs by those who can afford to leave is exacerbated.
This phenomenon is evident throughout urban America, but has received a great deal of attention lately with the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy.
OUR DETROIT CONNECTION
Here’s how the New York Times described what has taken place in the Motor City:
“In the eyes of some, the signs of a private sector turnaround have only served to accentuate divisions: a mostly black city with an influx of young, sometimes white artists and entrepreneurs; a revived downtown but hollowed-out neighborhoods beyond; an upbeat mood among business leaders even as the city’s frustrated elected officials face diminished, uncertain roles under state supervision.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has used his statutory authority to effectuate a state takeover of the city’s finances by appointing an emergency manager.
Keyvn Orr’s initial review of Detroit’s finances shows that the city has an estimated $15 billion to $17 billion in long-term debt. Orr is evaluating all the public assets to decide whether a major sell-off will be necessary.
“We’re looking at every function and every asset of the city to see how it provides value to the citizens of Detroit and asking the question, is there a better operational model that will allow it to provide more value through less cost or more revenue?” a spokesman for Orr explained.
Youngstown is becoming a smaller version of Detroit. A study of city government’s operations projects a $25 million revenue shortfall over the next five years.
Crime remains an intractable problem in the black population, as does a high unemployment rate among young black males. That’s a toxic combination in a community that does not have a large, vibrant private-sector middle class.
Then there’s the issue of the neighborhoods, where once stable areas of the city are now succumbing to blight.
Mayor Charles Sammarone, who took over the reins of the city after his predecessor, Jay Williams, left to join the Obama administration, is refreshingly honest about what’s going on.
“People can’t believe how bad the neighborhoods are. I’ve been pushing demolitions and code enforcement. If we don’t continue to do those, the population will continue to drop. People don’t like the condition of the neighborhoods, and the city didn’t respond fast enough.”
Sammarone is right that blight triggers flight. But will revitalizing the neighborhoods prompt those residents who have left for the suburbs to return, or persuade suburbanites who pay lip service to the city to leave the comfort and safety of their communities to move into Youngstown?
Of course not.
It’s not just a matter of perception. There is the reality that couples with children aren’t willing to experience a brave new world that is urban America.
For many suburbanites, Youngstown is a place to work and to enjoy a night out. It is not a place to live.
Can a city survive without a growing population base? And if today’s 65,405 residents reflects a continuing downward trend, what lies ahead?
The next mayor — Sammarone chose not to run for a full term this year — will have to confront this issue head on.