Many of us have probably heard the quip “demographics is destiny.” I have often wondered what this truly means. Are we powerless to change demographic trends in our local communities? If the population dips, is that something that should alarm us? Recent Lincoln County demographic trends may at first glance provide us with consternation. But a deeper analysis of them could point to opportunities to strengthen our communities and enrich lives.
During the entire 20th Century, according to U.S. Census data, Lincoln County’s population for the most part steadily grew. Data shows an 82% increase from 16,269 to 29,641 residents. Only two decades during the period saw a population decline. From 1920 to 1930 a mere eight people left the county and between 1940 and 1950 there was a 1% decline.
The long-term population growth from 1900 to 2000 coincided with increases in manufacturing sector jobs. With the recent decline in those jobs, about 38% from 2000 to 2010, came the most substantial reduction in the county’s population since the beginning of the 20th Century. The 3% decline in the number of county residents during the decade cannot be entirely explained by the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs, but this no doubt was an important contributing factor.
Another important factor in the declining population may be a fairly rapidly aging population. In 2010, 24.5% of Lincoln County residents were age 60 or older. According to American Community Survey (U.S. Census) three year estimates, between 2010 and 2012 this percentage increased to 25.2%, about 5% more than in the year 2000. This means in general that older people are staying- their experience is something the community should take advantage of- and that younger people are leaving.
The graph below shows population projections for ages 60-89 in Lincoln County, surrounding counties, and the state. (Chart based on estimates produced in 2008 by the Wisconsin Department of Administration Demographics Services Division).
If these projected trends continue, it is estimated that about 33% of the county’s total population in 2030 will be 60 to 89 years old. On the high and low spectrums, projections indicate that about 40% of Price County’s population and 26% of the state’s population will fall within that age range by that year. The coinciding decline in the prime working age population (ages 20-49) in Lincoln County would be from about 38% to 36% of total population, not as bad as one might expect. However the younger population, especially ages 15-19, is expected to contract much more.
One of the immediate concerns related to an aging population and general population decline is the accompanying reduction in the local tax base and the potential for harm to the area’s quality of life that may bring. Consequently local governments, for instance, are forced to find more creative ways to provide approximately the same level of services to the public in the face of declining revenue. State tax levy limits make it very difficult to raise revenue in traditional ways even if local governments cared to do so. It may help that there were 800 or so fewer people to serve countywide this year than there were in 2000. But not being able to collect any revenue from these one-time residents coupled with more projections of declining populations and costs constantly rising (e.g. health care) means that county and city government will continue to have budget challenges for the foreseeable future. Similar challenges are and will continue to be prevalent for not-for-profits, many of which at least depend partially on government grant funding, and the private sector as well.
Despite the obvious challenges, this government creativity can however help lead to greater efficiencies and in many cases at least the same level or even better public service. Government department heads are constantly looking for alternative revenue sources and to trim their budgets, something that was not the norm several years ago. Towns are often doing the same. More and more, departments are receiving grants for specific projects that are needed but otherwise could not be funded. Job sharing is taking place between departments (one person filling two similar roles.) Fees are being charged to cover special services not in demand by the larger public. In some cases, the number of people working for local government has been reduced primarily through means of normal attrition such as retirements or people accepting other opportunities and their positions not being refilled. Although fewer employees may at times mean that some services may not be delivered in as timely a fashion as before, governments have found that greater efficiencies and better service can be obtained when departments are sharing resources with one another.
New construction and jobs can help fill the revenue gap, but will probably not be enough in the short-term to do so completely, although the long-term benefits of the right kind of economic development (i.e. the creation of good jobs at a wage that supports families) has been documented in countless other communities across the nation.
From a community standpoint, groups working to improve the area’s quality of life are in part driven by the knowledge of demographic trends. Those who sit for example on the Merrill River District Development Foundation Board, people who are planning and raising funds for the River Bend Trail Project, discuss how amenities such as walking/biking trails can help to keep an aging population more fit and attract young families to the area. They argue that these types of quality of life enhancements are crucial to reversing projected population trends. That group along with various institutions as diverse as the T.B. Scott Free Library, one that constantly searches for ways to keep people of all ages engaged in learning, and the Park City Paths Group, one that is developing an historical walking tour with markers throughout Merrill, are at the forefront of keeping the county vibrant.
Demographics is not destiny if we work together in the effort to change what are or might seem to be, at least on the surface, unfavorable population trends. There is little doubt that as they learn more about real and projected demographic trends, the county’s residents will do even more to reverse them.