TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Hammered by the auto industry's slump, Detroit saw its population plummet 25 percent over the past decade, according to census data released Tuesday that reflects the severity of an economic downturn in the only state whose population declined since 2000.
The statistics show that the Motor City's population fell to 713,777 in 2010, compared to 951,270 in 2000. Although a significant drop was expected, state demographer Ken Darga said the number is "considerably lower" than the Census Bureau's estimate last year.
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"That's just incredible," added Kurt Metzger, a demographer with a Data Driven Detroit, a nonprofit that collects statistics used by area planners. "It's certainly the largest population loss percentage-wise that we've ever had in this city."
Detroit's population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950, when it ranked fifth nationally. But the new numbers reflect a steady downsizing of the auto industry — the city's economic lifeblood for a century — and an exodus of many residents to the suburbs.
Mayor Dave Bing disputed the new population data and plans to appeal. He said his city has at least 750,000 residents, which he called an important threshold for qualifying for some state and federal financial programs. He didn't say how so many people may have been missed.
City Council President Charles Pugh suggested that thousands of people "who are skeptical, distrustful of the government" avoided the count, such as convicted felons, illegal immigrants and residents who list suburban addresses to get lower car insurance.
The drop-off of more than 237,000 people in Detroit helped Michigan become the only state that suffered an overall population decline between 2000 and 2010, slipping 0.6 percent to 9,883,640. But the city, the state's largest, was not solely responsible for the dubious distinction.
The population fell 18 percent in Flint, another city heavily dependent on the auto industry and the birthplace of General Motors. Nearly half of the state's 83 counties lost residents, underscoring the ripple effect from Michigan's reliance on the ailing manufacturing sector.
Michigan has lost nearly 860,000 jobs since 2000, and its unemployment rate has long been among the nation's highest.
"The census figures clearly show how crucial it is to reinvent Michigan," Gov. Rick Snyder said. "It is time for all of us to realign our expectations so that they reflect today's realities. We cannot cling to the old ways of doing business."
That marks Michigan's first drop in black residents since statehood, and a historically significant change for a state that was long a magnet for blacks leaving the South to escape discrimination and seek jobs, said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer.
It's also a trend elsewhere, Frey told NBC News.
"When we look at the cities that have the highest concentrations of African Americans, more than half of them are showing declines in the populations of those African Americans," Frey said.
More recently, the housing crisis has accelerated foreclosures and driven down prices, which Metzger said has enabled more black families to buy houses in the suburbs.
"The next wave of ex-Detroiters with the same hopes and dreams has moved to the suburbs," he said.
Also the northward move by blacks has been reversed. Today's South is more welcoming for all ages.
"Some are older and retiring, connecting with cousins and genealogy and in some ways bringing the North back to the South," said Isabel Wilkerson, a journalism professor at Boston University.
Altogether, Michigan's cities lost 7 percent of their populations. Flint's population now stands at 102,434 residents. The capital city of Lansing suffered a 4 percent drop to 114,297, and even Grand Rapids — Michigan's second largest city, located in the less hard-hit western part of the state — was down 5 percent to 188,040.
Population increases were recorded in mostly suburban and some rural areas, the largest in counties on the fringe of metropolitan areas with large numbers of suburban commuters. Clinton County, north of Lansing, jumped 16.5 percent and Livingston County, between Detroit and Lansing, was up 15.3 percent.
Some rural areas fared badly. For example, the Upper Peninsula saw populations drop in 13 of its 15 counties, including a 13.3 percent drop — the worst statewide among counties — in far northwestern Ontonagon County.
Sharp increases were seen in Michigan's Asian and Hispanic populations.
The non-Hispanic Asian population was 236,490, up 35 percent over the decade — Michigan's fastest growing racial group — and now accounts for 2.4 percent of the state's residents. The state's Hispanic population grew by 34.7 percent, to 436,358, or 4.4 percent of the overall population.
The American Indian population inched up 1.3 percent to 54,665.
NBC News contributed to this report from The Associated Press.