Refocus on Rural Iowa Needed to Stabilize Population Declines

August 29, 2021

Michael Crumb, Business Record

Rural communities, which have been losing population for decades, must do more to stem that loss and stabilize if they are to thrive, the city administrator of one small northern Iowa community said.

The U.S. Census Bureau released its 2020 data earlier this month, and it showed that Iowa’s population grew to just over 3.19 million, up from just under 3.05 million in 2010, an increase of about 4.7%. The data also showed that the migration of residents away from small, rural communities continued with 68 of the state’s 99 counties losing population. Meanwhile, suburban areas, like Des Moines and Polk and Dallas counties continued to grow.

The long-term decline in rural Iowa, known as urbanization, has led to school consolidation and concerns about jobs, housing and the ability of small towns to continue to provide services. It also can have serious implications for the state’s ability to get federal dollars, which are often based on population.

Joe Murphy, Executive Director of the Iowa Business Council, said the latest census data only confirms what has been known for the past several years.

“We’ve been in the midst of a workforce shortage for quite some time, and more recently it’s the most acute workforce shortage we’ve ever experienced in our state,” he said. “We grew at less than 5% over 10 years. That’s about 14,000 individuals per year, which is really not great. That’s population stagnation at best.”

More needs to be done to grow the state’s population, retain graduates from the state’s universities and community colleges, and attract new people to Iowa, Murphy said.

He said while the growth that has occurred in Iowa needs to be recognized, it's important to acknowledge that the population has been shrinking in two-thirds of the state.

“Two-thirds of our counties in Iowa reached their peak population by 1950 or earlier, so we have to look at this holistically,” Murphy said. “I don’t think it helps much to pat ourselves on the back for small areas of growth. [The Business Council] has companies in all counties in the state, whether that’s through retail, health care, or other aspects, and we need to provide Iowans those opportunities to work for those companies, or they will look for elsewhere outside of the state to continue to grow their businesses.”

Iowa, Murphy said, is quickly becoming a location where there aren't enough people for companies to expand.

“And that’s not a good place to be in,” he said. “That’s why we’re concerned and why we need to be looking creatively into different solutions to grow the population and retain our current population.”

That will be difficult if rural areas of Iowa continue to shrink, Murphy said.

“That’s why we need to be really focused on those rural parts of the state,” he said. “That’s the direction I think the focus of the state should go in, trying to focus on economic growth in all four corners of the state.”

Workforce and affordable housing, grants for moving expenses, paying off student debt, and tax policy changes all should be considered to attract people to Iowa, Murphy said.

Immigration reform, including the resettlement of refugees, and industrial modernization, also need to be on the table, he said.

“We should be doing everything we can to explore those possibilities to see what might be helpful in growing our state and promoting economic growth, particularly in rural parts of Iowa,” Murphy said.

Murphy said the state’s slow growth and decline in rural areas also can have other ramifications.

Although Iowa won’t lose a congressional seat because of the latest census numbers, the continued stagnation in the state’s population could affect its abilities to get federal funds, Murphy said.

“It has impacts on not only the influence you have from a delegation standpoint, but it also has a direct impact on the amount of money coming into our state through federal grants, research or other things, because so many national agencies and departments allocate money based on population,” he said. “So if we’re not growing as fast as the rest of the country, at a minimum, we’re losing money, and that’s not a position any state wants to be in.”

Read the full article here.


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