Population data shows distinct trends in the movement of Wisconsin’s youth out and away from small, rural counties into more urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison, stemming from factors including economic recession and newly emerging industries in urban centers.
According to county population estimates released by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, nearly all of Wisconsin’s rural counties saw decreases in their populations between 2012 and 2013, most notably Price and Rusk counties, both falling an estimated 2.2 percent. Dane county saw the greatest influx of new people at 4.6 percent during the same period — 20,926 new people. Milwaukee County saw an increase of 7,759 new people.
University of Wisconsin professor David Egan-Robertson, a specialist in U.S. Census data and population estimates for Wisconsin, said the trend is caused partially by the nationwide economic recession. Many young people who leave their home counties for college are returning at a diminishing rate because of greater economic opportunities in urban areas, he said.
With the economy worsening since recession, there’s a patter of young people who, once they finish college, are not necessarily returning to their original counties, Egan-Robertson said. The greater economic opportunity presented in metro areas also explains the general increase in Wisconsin’s higher populated counties, he said.
Egan-Robertson said this was especially true in the Madison area because it is home to several growing technology companies, including Epic Systems.
“There is a really solid technology center in Madison, and that seems to be drawing some people with technological skills into the county,” Egan-Robertson said.
Hanna Haight, a junior majoring in medical microbiology and immunology, has noticed the trend in her hometown of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, population 9,144.
She said she has noticed that many of her hometown’s young people do not end up returning home after graduation. Most of her high school friends plan to live in bigger cities when they finish college.
“A lot of my friends have gone away to school and plan to stay in their cities because it’s a lot easier to find a job than in a small town. There’s just not that much going on,” Haight said.
A large percentage of the population in rural counties is comprised of retirees who have moved out of urban areas, Egan-Robertson said. The volatile housing market and general economic downturn have slowed this trend of older people returning to rural areas too, however, which is another cause for the decrease in rural populations, he said.
On the older end, fewer people are deciding to enter rural counties that previously drew a lot of retirees because of their economy and the depressed housing market, Egan-Robertson said.
The DOA population estimates are determined based on births and deaths, tax returns that indicate people moving in and out of counties, and Medicare data, Egan-Robertson said.
He pointed out that most of the rural counties losses were less than 1 percent, and said the estimates are not entirely accurate, indicating the trend could be less pronounced than the report indicates.
“The decreases in the rural counties are really very modest. The rural counties had fallen anywhere from less than 1 percent to 2 [percent] or 3 percent. Looking at that as a demographer, that’s not a lot of change and anytime you prepare an estimate there’s always a margin of error in that estimate,” Egan-Robertson said.