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Milwaukee’s population continues to shrink, according to new U.S. Census estimates

The latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Milwaukee’s population continues to decline. The city’s birth rate is positive, but more people are choosing to move out of the city.
Alena Mozhjer
Adobe Stock
The latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Milwaukee’s population continues to decline. The city’s birth rate is positive, but more people are choosing to move out of the city.

The latest population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau are out, and the estimates show that Milwaukee’s population is still shrinking, but at a slightly slower pace.

The city’s population numbers have yet to recover from the pandemic, despite Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s ambitious goal to grow the city’s population to 1 million people.

The most recent estimate shows that the City of Milwaukee lost 16,508 residents – a 2.9% decline – since the 2020 Census. Although most of those losses happened in the aftermath of the pandemic, the Census estimates the city’s population fell by 2,247 between July 2022 and July 2023.

John Johnson, a research fellow at Marquette University’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education, analyzed the Census data.

“The city’s and county's populations have fallen in every census, beginning in 1970,” Johnson says. “The city was actually growing from the mid-aughts — 2005-ish through the early 2010s — but when you look at those 10-year benchmarks, it's been declining consistently.

Then, when the pandemic hit, that really hammered cities across the country, and particularly Milwaukee. The population of the city shrank a lot in that first year of the pandemic, and then a little bit less the year after, but then it was still shrinking in 2023, even as other parts of the country were beginning to recover.”

Madison is an example of a city that has seen a steady increase in births and an inflow of people moving in since the pandemic began. The city’s gained 5,661 residents – a 2.1% increase – since the 2020 Census. However, Johnson notes that the city’s attractiveness is in large part due to having the state Capitol and the state’s flagship university.

“The other thing that Madison has done successfully, although not without causing some contention within the city, is building a lot more housing,” he says. “They've built a ton of housing in Madison to accommodate the demand to live there, and that's the number one reason why their population has been able to grow so much.”

John Johnson

Johnson says Milwaukee has a relatively strong birth rate that outweighs the rate of deaths, but more people are choosing to move away from the city, rather than move in.

“When the pandemic began there was a real movement out of the cities,” he says. “Part of the deal of living in a city is you might have less personal space, but in exchange, you have access to all these great amenities. During the shutdown, a lot of those amenities weren’t there, so I think quality of life really declined.”

But he says that population loss isn’t city-wide — it varies by neighborhood.

The population along the lake and downtown is higher than it was 20 years ago, whereas household sizes on the outskirts of the southwest and northwest parts of the city have shrunk.

“As household size declines, total population declines with it, even as the houses remain fully occupied,” he says.

There have also been dramatic population declines in neighborhoods across the north side of the city.

“There's a lot of lead poisoning, a lot of crime, a lot of predatory landlords,” he says. “And when people get the opportunity to leave those places, they often do, and then they're not replaced. Then there's this part of the city where the population has grown in recent years because of growing household size, which is unusual and mostly happens in places with a lot of immigrants. There are parts of the near South Side where we've seen that happen.”

Johnson says some of Mayor Johnson’s efforts to attract and retain people in Milwaukee include redesigning streets to help encourage safer driving and make neighborhoods more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

The mayor is also currently promoting a zoning code update called Growing MKE, which aims to increase the city’s housing supply and make it more walkable.

But Johnson says there’s still a long way to go for the city’s population to reach the mayor’s goal of 1 million.

“I think [the zoning code] is a great idea, honestly, and it could make some real changes in the city over time, but it's not the new policy yet,” he says. “The mayor has also begun talking this year about needing to improve the quality of education that's in the city, because when you especially talk to young families, you see that that's a big concern for them.”

You can read more of Johnson’s report on how the population is changing in Wisconsin and other Upper Midwest states on The Recombobulation Area.


Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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