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Ohio Is Largely Losing Population And Growing Older Except In The Greater Columbus Area, Study Shows


The vast majority of the state of Ohio is growing older, losing population, and losing workers — a trend offset only by growth happening mostly in Columbus and surrounding areas, a new report shows.

From 2000 to 2020, the state of Ohio saw its population grow by 3%, but if the city of Columbus and surrounding areas are removed from the equation, the rest of the state experienced population loss of about 1%, or 100,000 people, according to a new study from the nonpartisan nonprofit Greater Ohio Policy Center.

Ohio’s labor force decreased by 91,000 workers over the same time period, but Columbus and its larger metro area gained twice as many employed workers as the rest of the state, the report said.

The state as a whole — and cities and metros outside central Ohio — experienced significant decreases in people under age 54, the study added, using data from the 2020 U.S. Census. Meanwhile, it says, Ohio’s median household income is lower than the national average and has not kept pace with increases nationally.

“Much of Ohio functions like a legacy state rather than a rapidly growing place,” researchers wrote. “As a result, state policy makers need to think differently about the needs and challenges of the Columbus area versus other places in Ohio.”

The report, “Ohio + Columbus: A Tale of Two States,” broke Ohio down in a mixture of counties and city centers with greater metropolitan regions.

Legacy cities

 Graphic from the Greater Ohio Policy Center. 

The study said Ohio is rife with what are known as “legacy cities,” which are places “that came to prominence in the early-to-mid 1900s around a manufacturing economy but experienced significant population and manufacturing industry losses in the mid-to-late twentieth century.”

Ohio has 22 legacy cities surrounded by 15 legacy metros, it said. On the group’s website, they show places like Youngstown, Sandusky, Portsmouth, Springfield, Middletown, Massillon, Lorain, Elyria, Zanesville, Lima, Hamilton, Warren, and Xenia to be among these.

“Cities such as Akron, Toledo, and Dayton exemplify this concept,” authors wrote. “Today Ohio’s legacy cities are no longer experiencing precipitous population declines but may still be seeing only marginal population change, be it slow declines, slight growth, or remaining steady. These dynamics go hand-in-hand with an aging population and decreased economic vitality.”

Legacy cities today are still home to a significant concentration of jobs, residents, and anchor institutions that positively impact the state’s economy, the study said, and, like its legacy cities, “the state as a whole has experienced a reduction in manufacturing jobs and its population is aging.”

It said 64% of Ohioans live in a legacy city or the metro area anchored by one.

Only 18% of the state’s population lives in Columbus or its greater metro area, it said.

The city of Columbus and its metro area — which developed later and largely around professional and government services, and education and medical fields — do not exhibit the characteristics of manufacturing loss and an aging population, and are, in fact, diverging from much of the state on many key trends, authors wrote.

This is important, they highlighted, because “it means that policies or programs that might be right in Columbus may not be applicable elsewhere.”

Labor force, population, and demographics

 Graphic from the Greater Ohio Policy Center. 

When it comes to the labor force, legacy cities experienced a loss of 85,000 workers with small to medium sized cities accounting for 70% of those losses, according to the study. Legacy city adjusted metro areas experienced little change. The Columbus area was the only place in the state to perform on par with the nation as a whole.

Legacy city adjusted metro areas make up 64% of total Ohio labor force, and nearly 81% of the state’s workforce is outside the Columbus metro area, the study noted.

The legacy cities with the largest populations are Cleveland (383,331), Cincinnati (302,687), and Toledo (275,116). Seventy-one percent of non-white Ohioans live in legacy cities’ metros, with 36% in a core city. Columbus or its metro region is home to 24% of the state’s non-white residents, the study added.

The study noted that in the spring of 2022, the Census estimated Ohio’s population was overcounted by as much as 1.49%. Research by the Urban Institute concluded that older, white Ohioans were overcounted and that Hispanic, Black, noncitizen residents, and children under 5 were undercounted. Nevertheless, the study said, the 2020 Census is currently the best data available.

Appalachian Ohio contains 17% of the state’s population within its five legacy cities and 32 counties, the study said.

“This region, which has never been densely populated, struggles with many of the same challenges that Ohio’s legacy cities face on top of the effects of an resource extraction economy,” study authors wrote. “Though Appalachia is not a specific focus of this report, several of the solutions offered for Ohio’s legacy cities are also likely to help rural Appalachian cities and town.”

Household income

 Graphic from the Greater Ohio Policy Center. 

Wages in Columbus city and metro increased the most of any place in Ohio since 2000 but even so did not keep pace with national trends, increasing at rates of 45% and 50% respectively, compared to the nation’s 55%, the study said.

In 2020, the city of Columbus had the highest median household income for any city in the state ($54,902), it added. The highest incomes in real numbers are in the Cincinnati metro region ($69,023), Cleveland-Elyria metro region ($65,814), Columbus metro region ($65,044), and Dayton metro region ($62,347), according to the study.

Despite having incomes higher than the state median income, legacy metros as a whole did not experience income growth at the same rate, increasing by 38% versus 42% for the state and 55% for the nation, the study said.


As far as what can be done, the study said the focus of the state’s policies should be to stabilize existing populations and prevent further population loss by:

  • protecting municipal budgets with “predictable and assured access to stable sources of income;”
  • using national recovery and infrastructure funds to help to repair or modernize historic district infrastructure, utilities, and homes;
  • providing Community Development Financial Institution grants for lending to local businesses and real estate projects;
  • helping cities modernize zoning;
  • establishing a loan-loss reserve for small-dollar mortgages to help weak legacy city real estate markets;
  • investing in public transportation;
  • and, promoting new housing development to improve housing values and address demographic trends in age, income, and homeownership.

This article originally appeared on Ohio Captial Journal.

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