Iowa State economist authors report on population trends in the Midwest this decade

AMES, Iowa -- Demographers like Liesl Eathington eagerly await the new population data that will be provided by this year's U.S. Census. But before looking ahead to the latest population numbers, Eathington finds value in reflecting on Iowa and Midwest population trends this decade -- and where they're headed.

That's why the Iowa State University economist authored a new report, "2000-2009 Population Growth in the Midwest: Urban and Rural Dimensions," posted online on ISU's Regional Economics and Community Analysis Program (RECAP) website. The report examines the rural-urban dimensions of population change across a 12-state Midwestern region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin) over the first nine years of the decade.

While Iowa's total population grew by 2.8 percent over the past nine years, the report shows that the growth has occurred in the state's largest cities and their suburbs, while the rural areas are losing residents. All but 22 of Iowa's counties have declined in population over the last nine years -- with just 10 counties around the metropolitan areas growing faster than the Midwest region's 3.8 percentage growth. Midwest growth is less than half the 9.1 percent average population growth across the United States.

Eathington emphasizes that Iowa is not alone when it comes to rural population decline. A similar story has been playing out across much of the Midwest, particularly in three states to the west of Iowa.

"I thought our pattern was similar to Kansas, North Dakota, and to some of extent, Nebraska," said Eathington, who is the director of RECAP. "States on the western edge of the region are experiencing different degrees of population decline, but similar patterns. The metro areas are really the pull and may be contributing to some of the drain in the non-metro areas."

Putting population in urban and rural terms

The report explores the patterns of population change using several different definitions and degrees of "urban" and "rural." For example, Eathington's analysis compares the experiences of metropolitan and micropolitian areas with other, less populated counties in the region.

Iowa has 20 counties in metropolitan areas, defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget as a central county with an urban core of 50,000 or more in population, plus neighboring counties with strong linkages to the core area. The state also has 17 counties in micropolitan areas, defined around urban core areas with population from 10,000 to 49,999.

Iowa's metropolitan and large urban counties actually outperformed regional average growth rates, but its small urban and rural counties experienced higher rates of loss. The state's small urban counties lost 4.5 percent of their population, while six states in the region had slight growth in their small urban counties -- with Missouri having the highest at 1.6 percent.

Rural counties across the Midwest averaged a 5.1 percent population loss over the nine years. Kansas (11.7 percent) and Nebraska (11.1 percent) had the highest rate of loss. Iowa's rural counties lost 7.4 percent of their population.

The agricultural effect

A heavy reliance on agriculture is common to the states experiencing the greatest rural population loss -- Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa. And while that's not the lone reason for the shrinking population, Eathington confirms it's a contributing factor.

"It's related [to the population decline], but I wouldn't say it's causal," Eathington said. "The fact that we have more of an agricultural base -- and by definition, more rural space -- means there's already fewer job opportunities in those areas. Agricultural production requires less labor than it used to, and these ag-dependent areas are still adjusting to those changes."

Eathington wrote that while individual state and local development strategies are unlikely to reverse the region's most dominant urbanization trends, understanding Iowa's experience in a broader, regional context may help policy-makers and planners better respond to the state's changing demographic landscape.

"There are probably a dozen or so things to help on the margins, but the real purpose of my report -- and the reason I chose to look at a Midwestern view, not an Iowa view -- is to help temper expectations in non-metro areas about what can be done," Eathington said. "It's bigger than Iowa and bigger than a single community.

"And in the long run, this knowledge can have some value if people start a development initiative and their expectations aren't too high," she said. "So if they don't see the payoff right away, they may be less likely to be disappointed and give up. If they have more reasonable expectations, they may stick with it longer and be more pleased with the outcomes."

The projected release of the 2010 U.S. Census data will begin next summer.