What’s going on with Milwaukee’s population?

Posted on Categories Milwaukee, Public

The US Census Bureau releases two main annual estimates of population. Both indicate the City of Milwaukee’s population has slipped in recent years. This is a reversal of gains made in the first half of the 2010s.

The most current statistics are from the Population Estimates Program (PEP).1 These numbers are calculated using a combination of administrative records and a recent estimate of housing units. Details are available here. According to this method, Milwaukee’s population grew from 594,500 in the 2010 census to 600,700 in the summer of 2014. By the summer of 2018, this had fallen to 592,000.

The second method used by the Census Bureau is the American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the long form of the decennial census after 2000. It is randomly distributed to 3.5 million addresses a year, and participation is mandatory.2 The ACS estimates that Milwaukee’s population reached 600,000 in July 2015 before falling to 595,000 in 2017 (the most recent data available).

Irrespective of method, the trend is the same. Milwaukee’s population grew steadily during the first half on the 2010s, but it has declined just as steadily since then.

Given Milwaukee’s well-documented housing boom in parts of the city closest to downtown, this recent decline in population may seem surprising. Clearly, the rest of the city is not enjoying the same fortune. If the population is growing near the lake, where is it shrinking?

Due to large margins of error in the annual ACS estimates, it is difficult to say with any certainty where in the city these population changes are occuring. A few trends are at least hinted at, however.

Each graph below shows the annual population estimates (bracketed by their 90% confidence interval) for each census division of the city. The only section of the city with population change unambiguously outside the margin of error is the southern block of the city–including most significantly Bay View and the nascent Harbor District. This section of the city has probably added around 8,000 new residents.

The south central portion of Milwaukee (roughly the area west of 1st Street, north of Cleveland, and south of the Valley) has probably shrunk–possibly by as much as 5,000 individuals. Central Milwaukee (bounded by the river on the east, Sherman Blvd on the west, the Valley to the south, and Capitol to the north) also likely shrank by several thousand.

Little change is evident in the rest of the city. Perhaps the East Side has grown slightly.

Whatever the cause (be it continued movement to the suburbs, an aging population, or something else), Milwaukee’s population loss is driven by its shrinking white population. This is not new, but now it seems the black population may be joining the trend. Asians, Latinos, and (non-hispanic) whites all experienced statistically significant population change. The white population declined by around 13,000 from 2010 to 2017. The Latino population grew by almost 11,000; Asians by about 5,000. The black population, on the other hand, declined by almost 5,000. This figure is within the margin of error, but only just.