What positive mid-decade census numbers mean for Nebraska

A new development in Sarpy County, one of eight Nebraska counties with better than 4 percent population growth during 2010-2015 (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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May 5, 2016 - 6:45am

Mid-decade census numbers say Nebraska is growing at a historic level. Mike Tobias talks with census expert David Drozd from the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research about why we’re growing, where we’re growing, and how this impacts Nebraska politics. 

MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: Recent census reports tell us that while Nebraska isn't going to top any list of the fastest growing states in a country, we are doing better than usual and some ways better than our neighboring states.

A third of Nebraska's 93 counties gained population in the last five years (UNO Center for Public Affairs Research graphic)


David Drozd, UNO Center for Public Affairs Research (courtesy photo)



UNO Center for Public Affairs Research

U.S. Census Bureau

DAVID DROZD, RESEARCH COORDINATOR, UNO CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS RESEARCH: That's right. When you look at growth in the most recent one year period from 2014 to 2015, in this data Nebraska's growth rate ranked 21st-best in all states. That's well above where we’re usually at, which is often in the low 30s. So being 21st-best is a really good feather in our cap and we even were able to exceed the growth rate in South Dakota which we haven't done since 2000, and we also are better than our best comparison states of Iowa and Kansas, which again are kind of more in that low 30s range in percentage growth of population.

TOBIAS: Talk about growth compared to the past.

DROZD: When you look at what's happened so far in the 2010s, besides our fast growth of the 1990s when kind of the in-migration wave started, you'd have to go back 100 years to when Nebraska was largely frontier territory to find a decade where you would have higher population growth. So the 1910s was the last time that we'd be growing as fast as what we are currently today. And not only that, (but) where our growth is relative to the U.S. average is also the smallest. Nebraska has traditionally trailed the U.S. growth rate. But the gap by which were trailing it now is the smallest it's been going all the way back to 1900. So it just speaks to the relative pace of our growth and how we're just doing a better job of keeping our young people here.

TOBIAS: Another thing that was surprising to me is that in the first half of the decade we saw 29 counties, not just in the Omaha and Lincoln area but scattered throughout the state, that gained population. That's more than usual. So what's happening there?

DROZD: We had people moving to Nebraska for work purposes as the economic slowdown occurred nationwide, and at the same time we had a really strong agricultural market with record farm profits and high commodity prices. That's kind of slipped a little bit more recent years. But overall for the five year period from 2010 to 2015 it's been relatively positive. Again like you mentioned 29 (counties) grew. There were only 24 that grew late the 2000s and only 18 that grew early in the 2000s decade for a five year period. So we're doing better and that's nice to see.

TOBIAS: The counties that are losing population aren't losing as much as maybe they used to.

DROZD: That's right. When you looked at the population change over the course of the 2000s decade, Nebraska had 24 counties, or a fourth of our counties, lose 10 percent or more of their population. When you looked at states and compared how many of their counties had lost 10 percent, Nebraska was second highest, only to North Dakota, having more that lost that high amount of population. For this decade, as we extrapolate out to 2020, it looks like only eight or 10 counties will be in that range of losing 10 percent or more. Which is obviously a lot less than the 24 that did so during the 2000s. So even while those counties may not be growing in population, they're losing less population than what they did earlier.

TOBIAS: You talked about the impact of the agricultural economy. What are some of other things that are driving this population growth in the state?

DROZD: The majority of Nebraska’s population growth is from births exceeding deaths. Nebraska, as a state, has a birth rate that ranks in the top five in the country. Utah and Idaho are always toward the top, and we’re right there as well. So that's where our primary growth is. We also are seeing better net in-migration into the area. We only had like 14 counties that had in-migration during the 2000s. That's now up to 24.

TOBIAS: In spite of the gains in rural areas, Nebraska still continues to move toward being a state that's dominated, at least in terms of population, by the big three counties of Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy.

DROZD: That's been a steady trend ever since 1980. The percentage that those big three counties control of the state's population has gone up and up and up, and it's now well over half. By 2020 it's probably going to be about 56 percent of the state's population located in just those three counties.

TOBIAS: What do all these numbers mean for the state and especially talking about the move towards more population in our urban areas and with the primary election just days away there are some specific impacts related to that in our political landscape.

DROZD: The population numbers drive the political districts in a process called redistricting after the decennial census results are released. In the 2000s the impact was we had a District 49 from a rural part of Nebraska moved to Sarpy County, as a result of Sarpy County’s growth, which was the fastest in the state in the 2000s period. And again, given that the big three counties will have 56 percent of the population in 2020, we project that's going to move about two more seats from slower growth areas to the big three counties. Now it might not necessarily be a full shift of a district from out west to the urban area. But we’ll see some compaction where Lancaster County has a couple districts that extend beyond their border into neighboring counties. Those districts might fully be contained within Lancaster County, so they'll get smaller in size, given all the housing and population growth that southern Lancaster County especially has seen. So we can expect that to happen. People need to be prepared for it as the priorities among the senators, as they represent their constituents, will tend to favor urban areas more so than what they did in the past.

TOBIAS: It also has an impact when we look at the growth in numbers on our ability to retain three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

DROZD: That's the other big set of findings from these population estimates so far this decade, was that when the decade started in 2010 Nebraska, in a lot of our models, was in pretty great danger of losing a congressional seat. Now that five years have passed and our growth rate has been very similar to the U.S. average, most of the models now show that we'll keep our three seats, and that's obviously very important because it's not like we lose the third district, it’s that we as Nebraskans have a more diluted voice in Washington as the seat would go off to other places like Texas or California that have different priorities than we do. So that's the most positive development so far when we look at what's happened is that the likelihood we will lose a seat is much less than when we started of the decade. But again the redistricting process will have an impact again as the 3rd District will get larger in size. The 2nd District will have to again get a little bit smaller in size to have equal population as we go forward.

TOBIAS: What are some of the other impacts as we look at these positive numbers for the state? Why does this matter for us?

DROZD: We like to say and others have told us that the census figures are really money and power. So there are certain formulas that are population-related for receiving say federal highway dollars and other certain kinds of programs that deal with population-related groups that might be in need. And we also do see the political representation we've already talked about.

TOBIAS: Anything else that was surprising out of some of these mid-decade reports?

DROZD: Just that that we're doing so much better than Iowa and Kansas. The three states are very similar in structure in their economies, and Kansas especially has had much lower population growth this decade than the last decade, and Nebraska continues to have a growth rate that's almost twice of what Iowa (has). So to be performing better, relative to our neighbors, is really good and just puts us in a lot better position to continue to gain and attract talent as we move forward.

TOBIAS: Any sense as to what we're doing differently than Iowa or Kansas?

DROZD: When you look at the state's growth, our metro areas are just really growing faster. So maybe it's a little bit more diversified economies, especially in Omaha where at least at the time of 2010 had five Fortune 500 companies all in different industries. That really helped us weather the recession well. And just a broad job base here, very low unemployment rates, and I think that's just putting us in a good position to attract people here for work purposes.



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