Panhandle counties face population loss

Provided by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, this graph shows the population changes in Nebraska between the years of 1990-2000 and 2000-10. Red denotes a population increase in both decades and yellow marks a decrease in both decades. Pink indicates a population increase in 1990-2000 and a decrease in 2000-10. Orange represents a population decrease in 1990-2000 and an increase in 2000-10.

The big are getting bigger and the small are getting even smaller.

From the cornfield to the Senate floor, Nebraska’s rural areas are feeling the pinch of out-migration.

According to the 2011 Nebraska Legislative District Report, a study comparing the state’s counties on a wide range of economic developments, populations in Nebraska’s metropolitan areas are on the rise while many non-metropolitan communities are shrinking.

In 2010, Nebraska’s population growth rate of 6.7 percent, about 115,000 people, surpassed the rates of both Iowa and Kansas. However, much of that growth was concentrated in the urban areas of Sarpy, Douglas and Lancaster counties on the eastern side of the state.

Those three counties continue to be the fastest-growing in the state. In the last decade, the populations of 24 counties, including Sarpy, Douglas and Lancaster, grew and the remaining 69 counties saw losses as high as 10 percent.

Dr. Jerry Deichert, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said these figures can prove to be problematic for areas like the Panhandle, where several counties, such as Kimball, Banner, Sioux, Box Butte, Sheridan, Garden and Deuel, have not had an upswing in population in more than 20 years.

“It’s hard to know all the reasons why people move, but a lot of it is usually job or education related,” he said. “The problem is when they move, they take their wealth, their skills and their families with them and many of them don’t come back.”

While people have de-populated some Panhandle counties, they have moved in to others. A few counties — Cheyenne, Scotts Bluff and Dawes, specifically — have recorded growth in recent years.

The success of retail and educational entities, such as Cabela’s and Chadron State College, have allowed Cheyenne and Dawes to enjoy fairly steady economic progress.

From 2000 to 2010, the Scotts Bluff County lost about 1,000 people, but Deichert said an unexplained uptick occurred in the latter half of the decade, bringing in several hundred people. Many of those people moved from surrounding counties as well as Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“Scotts Bluff County is an interesting county. The first half of the 2000 to 2010 decade was worse for the county and the region than the later half of the decade. We don’t know why yet,” he said.

Unfortunately, pockets of success do not necessarily tip the scale when the out-migration problem turns political. The state’s congressional districts are redrawn by the Unicameral Legislature every 10 years and based on the 2010 census, they are drawn to hold about 30,000 people in each.

Currently, more than half of Nebraska’s population and congressional districts are already located within Sarpy, Douglas and Lancaster counties. If the pattern of out-migration continues, Deichert said rural Nebraskans could be feeling increasingly neglected by their state’s politicians in the coming years.

“In general, if an area’s population declines, it translates into fewer senators and less representation in the Legislature,” he said.

Rural out-migration is not an issue that is limited to Nebraska. Twin Cities Development Employee Recruitment Manager Darla Heggem said it is a problem that extends beyond state and national borders.

She referenced a similar situation in China, where rural villagers are flocking to nearby cities for school, career or family reasons.

“There’s a lot of factors. It’s a multi-faceted, global problem and it’s not just a U.S. thing. People everywhere are heading to bigger cities in search of more opportunities,” she said.

The solution may not be entirely clear, but instead of leaving western Nebraska counties to deal with the problem individually, Heggem added that the best course of action is for the Panhandle to face the issue as a unit.

“I think (the Panhandle) needs to recognize we are our own region and we need to all work together to address this. It doesn’t make sense to compete with each other,” she said.

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