by Collin Westgard
On April 18th, the Center for Small Towns hosted an event with Susan Brower, the head Demographer with the state of Minnesota. The event, entitled “Greater Minnesota’s Demographic Future: Trends Among Youth and Young Adults”, explored rural Minnesota’s shifting demographics and the implications of these shifts on the labor market and community engagement. As rural populations shrink and average ages rise, attracting new residents will become vital for the future of many small towns across Minnesota and throughout the country.
Brower opened with an overview of Minnesota’s population growth in the last 5 years, highlighting the disparity between growth in rural and urban counties. Of the 179,000 people Minnesota added from 2010-2015, over 88% occurred in the metro area counties, with Hennepin and Ramsey jointly accounting for close to 100,000. In rural areas, the majority of counties either lost population or grew only slightly. Of the counties outside of the metro area, only Clay, Stearns, sherburne, wright, and carver grew by over 2,500 people, and dozens of counties experienced population loss.
This population has major effects on the labor market in greater Minnesota. Long-term projections show a statewide labor force shortage everywhere but in the metro, with many regions losing close to 10,000 workers by 2030. The most interesting point noted by Brower was that the drop in labor force would be considerably higher if it were not for immigration and populations of color. Even rural areas are becoming increasingly diverse, and in many counties outside of the metro area people of color make up over 10% of the population. In fact, as older generations retire, the workforce will become increasingly diverse, as people of color already make up over 20% of workers between the ages of 16 and 34.
Next, Susan explored the pattern of growth by the “Geography types” in greater Minnesota, sorting areas by classifying them as urban, large town, small town, or entirely rural. Urban areas, such as the Twin Cities Metro, Rochester, Saint Cloud, Moorhead, Mankato Duluth, and the Minnesota portions of Grand Forks and Sioux Falls accounted for nearly four million people, or 73% of the population. In the decades to come, this percentage is expected to get even larger. Growth in large towns such as Alexandria, Brainerd, Hibbing, and Owatonna is also expected to increase in the next few decades, while small towns and rural areas are expected to lose population.
Brower then looked at the demographic future of Stevens County. Unlike other nearby counties such as Pope and Swift, Stevens county is projected to remain almost exactly the same, with only tiny deviations from the approximately 10,000 people currently residing in the county. She then looked at the sources of net migration to Stevens county. Perhaps due to the university, residents of the county come from all across the country, especially in the midwest, but also from Oregon, Maine, Alaska, Massachusetts, and Florida. Stevens county also has very high numbers of international migrants compared to the area, most likely also due to the presence of UMM.
Susan finished up by talking about the upcoming 2020 US Census. The Census is vital for small towns across the country and state, because the population figures derived from the census are used in determining Federal funding for the next ten years, to the tune of $1,532 per person per year. Such funding is critically important to small towns and rural areas, which use the money for critical improvements to the lives of their residents. Brower then invited an official from the US Census in Minnesota to speak in more detail about the 2020 Census. He expanded on the importance of people filling the census out accurately, and mentioned that snowbirds and other seasonal residents need to take special care to ensure that they fill out the censur form for their home state, ensuring that federal funding and congressional representation is allocated in their home state.
This talk highlighted some of the key challenges that rural areas in Minnesota during the coming decades. The shortage of workers and loss of population are problems the need to be addressed with new ways of thinking about rural areas. While the future will be challenging, it also brings about opportunities for the next generation to live in and engage with small towns across our state.