What drew St. Louis’ civic leadership and professional class to Better Together like moths to a flame? It’s their belief that the single biggest impediment to St. Louis’ ability to grow and prosper is its fragmented local government structure. The way St. Louis city and county are politically organized is in serious need of rethinking, but it’s not our definitive problem.
Demographics may not be destiny, but it’s the single most important metric in understanding a community. Because sustained economic growth is only possible when you have sustained population growth, it’s one of the best ways to measure the overall economic health of a region.
In 1870 there were 351,000 people in the City of St. Louis. By 1900 the population was 575,000. In 1920 the number was 722,000. And in 1950 it peaked at 856,000. If you argued city’s separation from the county was the driver, you’d be wrong.
From the time the city separated from the county the population grew from 351,000 to 856,000, making St. Louis the 10th largest city in America. For most of that time, the city was operating under the exact same governmental structure as today. However the country’s population had doubled to 150 million people during that time, so despite a population increase of almost 50 percent, St. Louis, at its apex, was at risk of being lapped by the country.
When you move to 2010 the city’s inverse relationship to the country’s overall growth is even more stark. By 2010 the city’s population had shrunk to 319,000, while the country had doubled in size again to 309 million. The United States got four times bigger in 110 years, while the City of St. Louis got 63 percent smaller. I won’t speculate why the city was on the wrong side of this population trend, but I believe the structure of the city’s government had little or nothing to do with it.
For most of the last 60 years, people in the suburban part of the region considered themselves separate and apart from the city and, in fact, they were quite smug about what they called their growth. But a retrospective look at the larger region would tell a far different story.
In 1960 there were 750,000 people in the City of St. Louis and 704,000 in St. Louis County for a combined population of 1.4 million. By 1990 the city’s population had fallen to 397,000 and the county’s had increased to 994,000, but the combined total was still 1.4 million. By 2010 the city population had bottomed out at 319,000 and the county flat-lined at 1 million people for a city/county total of 1.3 million.
That was 50 years of economic activity but no real economic growth, but you wouldn’t have known that from talking to county leaders and residents for most of that time.
Let’s cast the net of this argument wider to include St. Charles County. In 1960 St. Charles County had a population of 53,000 people. When added to the 1960 population totals of St. Louis city and county, that gives you a total of 1.45 million people. In 2010 the combined population of St. Louis city and county was 1.3 million people and St. Charles County had grown to 360,000 for a regional total of 1.66 million, an increase of 200,000 or 12 percent in 50 years.
However, the country grew by 50 percent over this same time, from 200 million to 300 million. No matter how you run the numbers, you end up in the same place.
The St. Louis region’s decline started 100 years ago, and it has been flat-lining for the last 50 years. However, for most of the last 50 years St. Louis business and political leaders have ignored this reality, substituting propaganda and marketing for empirical-based analysis. They allowed themselves and the public to believe the region was in great shape except for a corrupt and increasingly African-American central city.
In the routine of our everyday lives we make causal connections all the time, but correlation proves causation is considered a questionable cause logical fallacy. When you’re dealing with the fate of entire communities this kind of intellectual sloppiness leads to failures like Better Together.
Better Together is not the solution to the decline of a once great city. It’s the simple-minded answer to a complex and complicated question: how to sustain the viability of a metropolitan region over time.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.