Rural Wisconsin Counties Continue To Lose Population

University Place: David Egan-Robertson Explains Migration In Wake Of Recession
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The Calumet County courthouse in Chilton, Wisconsin. Located east of Lake Winnebago, Calumet is among the counties whose net migration rate has been negative in recent years.

Since the Great Recession, more people have been migrating out of Wisconsin than moving into the state — a pattern contrary to Minnesota and Iowa.

All three states had a net gain of people moving into them through 2009, the last official year of the recession, but since 2010 Wisconsin has had more people move out than in since 2010, said David Egan-Robertson, a demographer with the University of Wisconsin Applied Population Laboratory. Iowa has had positive annual net migration in all years, while Minnesota's pattern was negative only in 2010. In 2011, Minnesota started posting the largest gains of all three states.

Egan-Robertson discussed Wisconsin migration patterns in a November 12, 2015, talk given at the Cooperative Extension State Conference. His presentation, "Population Changes in Wisconsin since the Recession," was recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

Among Wisconsin's counties, the number losing population has increased since 2004, with 42 of the 72 dropping in 2012, compared to 13 in 2002. "[W]e've been hovering sort of in the more or less half gain, half loss situation since the Great Recession," Egan-Robertson said.

Key facts

  • Fewer people have been migrating within the United States since about 1990, probably because the internet helps people navigate labor markets and enables some to work remotely. In addition, an increasing number of jobs are no longer specific to one geographic region.

  • Total movement of people between states occurs at all ages, and people tend to move a lot in their early adult years. However, since 2007, smaller percentages of each age group have been moving to different states.

  • Going back to 1981, data show that migration in Wisconsin follows a long cyclical pattern, with positive net migration from 1989 through 2007. For 2014, the data show a net gain.

  • Of Wisconsin's 72 counties, fewer than 20 lost population prior to 2005. From 2009 to 2014, more than 30 counties lost population, except in 2011, when 27 had an annual loss.

  • During 2002-07, before the Great Recession, 45 counties gained population; afterward, only 21 counties gained population during 2009-15, meaning the other 51 had negative domestic migration.

  • Milwaukee County's total population has been fairly stable over the last 35 years at about 950,000 people, which is about 16 percent of the state's population. One out of every six Wisconsin residents lives in the county.

  • The five-county area of Milwaukee, Washington, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Racine counties has about 1.75 million residents, or 30 percent of Wisconsin’s total population.

  • Kenosha and Walworth counties are affected by Chicago's metropolitan area, which with its 9 million residents means it has 65 percent more people than the entire state of Wisconsin.

  • Based largely on commuting patterns, demographers consider Pierce and St. Croix counties to be part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, which is about 3.3 million people. Polk County might be added to this categorization.

  • Duluth, Minnesota, and the Wisconsin counties of Dane, Brown and Outagamie, and Eau Claire form the core of four small metropolitan areas with fewer than 1 million people each. Each has maintained its population in terms of net migration, but eight counties on their fringes — Calumet, Chippewa, Columbia, Douglas, Green, Iowa, Kewaunee and Oconto — saw their net migration fall from positive before the recession to negative following it.

Key quotes

  • On smaller shares of age groups moving to new states since 2007: "So this may be kind of a new normal pattern for us in the country, that there'll be a lot less movement among all age groups around the country. … [T]here's much greater volatility at younger age groups, and net movement really declines starting around age 40 or 44 and onward into older age groups."

  • On Wisconsin's natural population increase, or the number of births minus the number of deaths: "[B]etween the recessions, [the] number of births rose at quite a steady rate, got up above 70,000 for a number of years. But then, once the Great Recession hit, we saw fertility decline. And this is also part of, Wisconsin is just part of a national pattern. … So, from the peak year, in 2007 where we had about 73,000 births, the state's total has fallen now, about 6,000. So we're averaging about 67,000 births over the past three years. … [Counted deaths have] held fairly steadily across time, but deaths have been edging upward in the past few years."

  • On natural increase at the county level: "So the number of counties with positive natural increase held relatively steady through the 2000s, but since the Great Recession, the number with more births than deaths has begun to slip. What this analysis doesn't show is that over the last five years, the number of Wisconsin counties with declining natural increase, either positive and getting smaller or actually turning negative, or negative and becoming more negative, 64 of the 72. So this is a very broad change that's happening across the entire state and really affecting virtually every county equally."

  • On big metro areas that influence Wisconsin's population, in addition to metropolitan Milwaukee: "We're right on the edges [of Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul] … . And they actually have a lot to do with the net migration figures for the whole state of Wisconsin, actually, even though it pretty much involves only five counties."

  • On primarily recreational retirement counties: "Non-metro small counties that are not adjacent to metro areas in any way, about those nine counties mostly up north, they're kind of holding their own too in terms of migration patterns.”

  • On the 16 counties the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service defined as manufacturing dependent: "So we're seeing a real drop in a lot of those counties that have, smaller population counties, about 40,000 average, and they are dependent on probably mostly small manufacturing."
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