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What the numbers say

The decline of Rochester’s population, to 209,983 in 2014, amounts to a loss of barely more than 500 people, compared with four years earlier; that’s just 0.3 percent. But the new Census figure carries with it much more weighty symbolism: For the first time ever, Rochester is not among the 100 largest cities in the nation.

This has been a long time coming, of course. After ranking in the top 25 for more than 100 years, Rochester in the 1940s began a long, steady retreat; by 1990, it had fallen to 66th, and 20 years later, the city barely made the top 100 list, at 98th.

Today, Rochester is the 103rd-largest U.S. city. The picture seems considerably less gloomy, however, if you look at Rochester as a metro area.

According to the latest Census data, the Rochester metropolitan statistical area ranks 51st nationwide, one spot behind Buffalo-Niagara Falls. And from 2010 to 2014, this region’s population actually increased, to 1,083,393 from 1,079,671.

Monroe County–including the city–also has grown since 2010, with most towns registering increases. Ontario County’s population rose even more.

But make no mistake, the city of Rochester matters–to the entire region. And as economist Gary Keith notes elsewhere in this week’s issue, there’s another number that’s even more troubling—the number of employed residents.

Over roughly the last quarter-century, the city’s population has slid 9.6 percent, while in the same time frame the number of city residents with jobs has dropped nearly 20 percent. By contrast, the number of employed metro Rochester residents outside of the city slipped a fraction while the population increased by the same percentage as the city’s decline, 9.6 percent.

As the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative gets down to business, it should pay particular heed to these numbers. Health and nutrition, housing, education, safe neighborhoods and the criminal justice system–all are important. However, economic opportunity is the surest path forward and the one most likely to reverse the city’s long-term population trend.

5/29/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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