Cecil Bohanon and John Horowitz: Indiana has seen more booms than it has busts

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Fifty years ago, no problem seemed more urgent than unchecked population growth. How times have changed.

The downsides of depopulation are front and center, especially in state and local policy circles. Popular wisdom is that the Midwest, Indiana and Hoosier communities are depopulating and at risk of dying out. However, U.S. Census data offers a more nuanced story.

From 1970 to 2020, the U.S. population rose from 203 million to 331 million, a 63% increase. From 1970 to 2020, Indiana’s population grew from 5.2 million to 6.8 million, a 31% increase. Since Indiana’s growth is less than the nation’s, Indiana’s share of the nation’s population declined.

Looking at Indiana communities with a population over 50,000 in 2020, the data reveal seven Indiana cities whose population declined between 1970 and 2020. The aggregate population decline in these cities was 28%, ranging from a 61% decline in Gary to a 6% decline in Muncie.

On the other hand, there were 10 Indiana cities with a population over 50,000 in 2020 with more residents than in 1970. The aggregate population increase in these cities was 95%, ranging from a 25% gain in Elkhart to a whopping 1,391% increase in Carmel.

There were 15 Indiana cities with a population over 10,000 but under 50,000 in 2020, with fewer residents than in 1970. The aggregate population decline in these cities was 18%, ranging from a 44% decline in East Chicago to a 2% decline in New Albany.

But 45 Indiana cities with a population over 10,000 but under 50,000 in 2020 had more residents than in 1970. The aggregate population increase in these cities was 110%, ranging from a 2% gain in La Porte to a mammoth 2,426% increase in Westfield.

In other words, there were more winners than losers and more booms than busts.

However, being among the losers often leads to greater affordability. A recent study on rental housing costs indicated that at a national level, rental rates per square foot average $1.78. They are $0.87 in Muncie and $0.89 in Terre Haute. Housing in Muncie and Terre Haute is half as expensive as the national average.

Recently, at the prodding of one of his students, after a five-year hiatus, Bohanon picked up his golf clubs for nine holes with a cart at a well-maintained course near Muncie. It cost $19 plus $3 for a Coors Light. Even declining towns in the Midwest have their charms.•

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Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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