November 28, 2005

Voting with Our Feet, Part 4: Leaving Cincinnati (and Other Ohio Cities)

Filed under: Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 11:11 pm

Back in ancient times (actually, the mid-1960s), I learned in our school’s Ohio history class that the state had eight cities with a population of over 100,000 (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown)–more than any other state in the US.

Look at what has happened since then (in 000s):


Data source links are at each underlined year listed: 2003 (once at link, select a city), 2000 (once at link, select a city), 1990, 1980, 1970, 1960. Some data for Canton and Youngstown was obtained from here and here.

Every city except Columbus, whose growth was largely achieved through aggressive annexation and the explosion in Ohio government and university employment in the past 40 years, has suffered a steep population drop (Toledo’s decline didn’t start until after 1970, and the drop since then has been 20%).

Why did this happen, and, from all appearances, why is this still happening? As I mentioned in my previous post on Hamilton County, I believe that you can isolate four contributing factors:

  • Overall economy in the metro area
  • Schools
  • Crime
  • Taxes

I’m going to limit my comments from here on out to Cincinnati, but I believe much of what I say will apply to the situations in the other six declining cities.

Looking at Cincinnati, what explains a 37% drop? The overall economy in the Greater Cincinnati Metro area has grown consistently during the 43 years involved. Sure, there have been hiccups that corresponded with the late-1970s and early-1980s recession, and the two mini-recessions of 1990-1991 and 2000-2001, but in general growth has been pretty steady.

So that leaves the other three, where the city has performed miserably:

  • The schools have been and continue to be awful. Despite some recent signs of progress, they badly lag suburban and ex-urban school districts. One example (not linked, since it’s a spreadsheet): Cincinnnati city schools are third-worst in Hamilton County in overall student proficiency on the 10th Grade Proficiency test (46.1%, ahead of Mt. Healthy’s 38.8% and North College Hill’s 43.3%, and only a bit behind Winton Woods’ 49.0%). In the three other Ohio counties in the metro area, only Middletown School District (40.9%) has worse proficiency results. (For more information on proficiency test performance, go to the state’s proficiency test results web page and start poking around.)
  • Crime is horrible, and the perception is even worse. In fact, the late 1960s race riots can be seen as the realy beginning of the significant population slide. The city lost its previous reputation for safety then, and has never gained it back. The much smaller but more nationally visible 2001 riots (because the 1960s riots occurred at the same time as those in many other cities) appear to have initiated yet another accelerated exodus. How bad is it? The city has had 75 murders this year, on track to equal or surpass the all-time record of 81 set back in 1971, when the city had 40% more people than it does today. Violent crime has also infested some of the city’s formerly safe leave-the-doors unlocked neighborhoods. In one of them, an 84 year-old man was shot in his home, in his wife’s presence, by three punks last Halloween night during the closing minutes of that evening’s trick-or-treat period. The three alleged perps have been caught, but that’s small consolation to his wife, whose husband was still in intensive care on November 17, and the neighborhood, which has a new sense of vulnerability.
  • Taxes are exorbitantly high. Cincinnati’s real estate taxes as a percentage of taxable value are the highest of any major city in the state except Dayton, which is in arguably worse shape than Cincinnati. (I did the percentage calculations on data that is available in a downloadable spreadsheet at the bottom of this page.) Cincinnati’s income tax rate is 2.1%, by far the highest in the Ohio portion of the metro area (a couple of cities in Northern Kentucky may have higher rates), and is assessed based on where a person works, not where they live. With hundreds of thousands of people who work in the city but reside outside of it supplying tax dollars (without representation), you would think the city could do a better job with its schools and public safety. Nope–see the previous two items above.

How to reverse the slide? It should be doable, but from all appearances no one is even giving lip service to ideas that might work. The city has learned that trying to get tough on crime invites charges of brutality and racism, so thugs run rampant in many neighborhoods. The schools, as hard as they try, are affected by the crime culture and have to spend a lot of money that should go to education on safety. As to taxes and spending, the city hasn’t considered reducing the income tax since it went to 2.1% about 20 years ago, it refuses to try money-saving initiatives that have worked in other towns (like the privatization of many services that worked in Indianapolis). The size of the city payroll is way too high for a city of 300-plus thousand, and every administration has appeared to be captive to the municipal unions. So the prospects are not pretty.

When people “vote with their feet,” they do so even though it’s a time-consuming and costly process. Human inertia being what it is, most people want to stay where they are unless there are compelling reasons to go elsewhere. It’s clear that in the past 40 years, hordes of individuals and families have decided that Cincinnati’s poor schools, high crime, and high taxes have gone beyond the level of endurance (and similar hordes have decided not to move in for the same reasons).

If the City of Cincinnati doesn’t get a grip, and soon, it may soon have to endure the idea that it has become smaller than Toledo. Imagine a trade of the Reds or Bengals for the Mudhens (Toledo’s minor-league baseball team), straight up.

Previous “vote with our feet” posts:
- Part 1: What Thanksgiving Is Partially About
- Part 2: It’s the Taxes, Stupid
- Part 3: Walking Away from Academic Excellence
- Part 5: Willisms Looks at State Migration Patterns
- Part 6: Losing the Very Rich



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  2. I hope you don’t mind, I will use your outline to expand my thoughts.

    You suggest 4 motivators for City flight.

    Overall economy in the metro area

    I suggest it goes beyond overall economy. This is the argument that happens at the national level. The GDP looks great ergo the economy is great. I believe a closer look is warranted. You need to take a kitchen table approach to economics not a macroeconomic, ivory tower, and mile high view. What sectors of the economy are hot? Where are the jobs and more importantly what are the shifts in employment. Generally manufacturing is down and service industries are up. These new service jobs can easily relocate into the suburban counties. You hit on something in the inertia. Once you overcome that inertia physical distance is not such a factor. If you go to the trouble of moving you want a shiny new space.


    Not much argument here. The City schools are not everything they should be.


    Perception is everything. Look at the recent council and Mayor’s race. Crime. Crime. Crime. I think there is good news to be found if you look for it, but you don’t here about it. (I almost sound like a Republican with that statement :) )


    I remain unconvinced this is such a big deal. In the scope of all taxes, the differences in municipal tax rates fades pretty quickly.

    I think you missed one major factor.


    As was mentioned in the previous post, I think a lot of this is driven by some peoples desire to build their own McMansion. The outer ring counties’ got huge… tracts of land.

    If I were to go back to school for to get a masters degree in Planning I think my thesis would be on the idea that inner Cities are the Social Darwinian equivalent to Charles Darwin’s actual The Darwin figured out that coral atolls have their strange circular shape because coral begins growing around an island, then as the island erodes or subsides the coral continues to grow upward leaving a ring. Stephen Jay Gould talks about this in his book, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.

    I digress. In conclusion, I think you make some good points. I just think you over emphasize the role of taxes. The City of Cincinnati and all cities need to work on this problem. I just don’t think futzing around with taxes should be the priority.

    Comment by Jeff Sinnard — November 29, 2005 @ 6:54 pm

  3. I closed you Darwin tag and didn’t change anything else.

    I don’t deny that housing is a factor, as has been the building of the interstate highways to make moving out and driving in more feasible.

    And I agree that taxes is third as a factor in the city, well behind crime and schools.

    There are a lot of people (apartment dwellers, seniors) who might be interested in a central city lifestyle because of proximity and convenience over lots of space, but many don’t consider moving into the city because of the crime. And it’s more than perception, given the death toll and a lot of other pretty bad comparative crime stats.

    Comment by TBlumer — November 29, 2005 @ 9:19 pm

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