Congress

Shrinking congressional districts look for federal help

Some districts may have lost 30,000 or more people through 2018

Flint, Mich., residents Virginia Mitchell, right, and her daughter-in-law, Tiara Williams, pictured in 2016 during the city’s lead contamination crisis. Flint is among communities that have lost population since 2010 and are seeking more federal dollars. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Despite explosive growth in other areas of the country since 2010, about 80 congressional districts have lost significant population over the decade — leaving many looking for help from the federal government. 

Some districts may have lost 30,000 or more people through 2018, many of them in manufacturing and mining areas in the Northeast, according to Census Bureau data released last month. Most of those districts are represented by Democrats but located in states President Donald Trump won in 2016 by promising new trade deals that have since taken a back seat in Washington.

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Long-term population trends have these places losing as much as five percent of their population over eight years, according to census data. The districts that declined by 20,000 or more were concentrated in a stretch from western New York down to Mississippi, including Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Arkansas. Two of the districts that lost more than 30,000 people are in Michigan, a state Trump won by about 10,000 votes.

“We have places where the population is going down, and they don’t have the locational advantage to turn it around,” University of Michigan professor Ren Farley said. “How do we as a nation deal with that? We are much better prepared to deal with population growth than population decline.” 

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Pressure for congressional action

The congressional districts that lost population are primarily former industrial, agricultural or mining areas that have seen decadeslong declines in population.

Representatives from those districts think that efforts in Congress can at least help their communities, if not reverse the long-term trend. Democrat Dan Kildee, whose Flint, Michigan, district lost about 30,000 people between 2010 and 2018, said he’s particularly interested in the labor enforcement provisions of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement meant to supplant the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“It’s really mostly loss of the manufacturing because it’s to technology, but it’s also the loss of jobs to low-wage parts of the country and low-wage parts of the world,” Kildee said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t brought the USMCA to the House floor yet, and all but a handful of House-passed bills have been buried by the Republican-controlled Senate. On top of that, Trump has threatened to suspend legislation entirely while the House weighs impeaching him.

Republican Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson also is looking to the USMCA to bring relief to his Pennsylvania district, which has declined by about 24,000 people through 2018 as part of a broader trend in the western half of the state.

Thompson said the dairy farmers in his district have been squeezed since an industry downturn and regulatory actions in 2010. Milk prices have consistently stayed low, and passing the USMCA would give farmers expanded access to the Canadian market for milk and milk products.

“I think we have the votes for it,” Thompson said. “I think it’s a matter of the speaker being willing to put it on the floor, and I’m optimistic that perhaps at this point she will do that.”

Meanwhile, other employers are having trouble finding qualified applicants for open jobs in areas without a large number of college graduates or people with technical training, Thompson said. They could be helped by a long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, or smaller legislation that would expand Pell Grants for skills training. Instead, Thompson said, the House has spent time passing legislation without a hope in the Senate or on impeachment.

“My Democratic friends are failing to fulfill their constitutional responsibility of actually legislating. I mean, we’re the legislative branch: Article I. And they’re not putting serious proposals forward,” he said.

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Some lawmakers who represent shrinking districts have taken a sharp departure from trade deals and other policies boosted by Trump. Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib has pushed for a repeal of the 2017 tax law in favor of what she called the earned income tax credit “on steroids” for lower-income families.

“I don’t want to rely on corporations anymore, on companies choosing us over profits,” she said, noting that some of the development in her district in recent years has not brought job growth along.

Michigan drivers face some of the highest car insurance rates in the country, according to a University of Michigan study from March, averaging $5,000 in the city of Detroit, which Tlaib represents. She said those costs are pushing people out of the city, and she has supported legislation to ban the use of proxies like credit scores in setting rates.

Long-term declines

Detroit has lost more than half of its population since 1950. The 2010 census pegged the city at slightly more than 700,000 people, and the latest data shows Tlaib’s 13th District, which includes parts of the city and its suburbs, specifically may have lost another 40,000 through 2018.

The decline of U.S. auto manufacturing has hurt not just Detroit itself but the surrounding towns that housed component factories. Even if the federal government could bring back more of the auto industry to Michigan, it wouldn’t be enough to bring back the heyday of the 1970s, Farley said.

The growth in autonomous driving and the electric vehicle industry has helped fuel a resurgence in downtown Detroit that has brought in a new crop of young college graduates, Farley said. However, that hasn’t changed the fact that auto manufacturing now requires far fewer people.

“For the gentleman or woman who had a [United Auto Workers] job that paid $55,000 a few years ago that disappeared, they might not have much luck,” Farley said.

Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, pointed out that although coal mining has declined in general in his state, the composition and type of coal in the southern portion of the state has hit those communities particularly hard.

Meanwhile, jobs have shifted to northern West Virginia due to natural gas fracking, O’Leary said, further adding to the geographic disparity. That helped contribute to the overall population loss in the southern third of the state, which lost about 40,000 people between 2010 and 2018.

“Our population is older, and we have a low birth rate. We don’t have young people starting families. We have older, middle-age families,” O’Leary said. “It’s almost like the young people left a generation ago, and this is what’s left behind.”

Flint, Michigan, in Kildee’s district, has lost half its population from its high in the 1960s, to less than 100,000 in 2018, according to Census Bureau data.

“The problem is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you begin to lose population, public services decline, the communities themselves become less livable, and it becomes a really difficult downward spiral,” Kildee said.

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