CLAY DEAN (copy)

Wisconsin's rural counties have seen population decreases in the first half of the 2010s.

Wisconsin's modest population growth since the 2010 Census has come almost entirely in its larger population centers, leaving rural areas shrinking.

The U.S. Census Bureau released 2015 population estimates for counties last week, and more than half in Wisconsin showed a loss since 2010.

While the state has grown as a whole by more than 84,000 thanks to some of the bigger counties, 40 of the 72 counties in Wisconsin had a smaller population in 2015 than they did five years earlier.

Population trends show a noticeable division along the lines of statistical areas.

The Census Bureau includes counties that feature a population center of 50,000 people or more, or those that are connected to such a location by work or commuting patterns, as part of a metropolitan statistical area.

A micropolitan statistical area, meanwhile, has a population center of at least 10,000 people but not more than 50,000.

Wisconsin has 26 counties in the metropolitan category, and between the 2010 Census and the 2015 estimate, their combined population increased by 91,506, or 2.19 percent.

The 14 Wisconsin counties that are classified as micropolitan were virtually unchanged over 2010 when combined.

Of the remaining 32 counties, 28 had a smaller population in 2015 than in 2010, with a combined net loss of 7,243, or -0.99 percent.

UW-Madison Applied Population Laboratory demographer David Egan-Robertson said Wisconsin's rural downsizing is a part of a national trend and another ebb in a long cycle of rising and falling populations for rural areas.

Population flows made a marked movement toward urban areas in the post-World War II decades of the 1950s and 1960s, he said, before a so-called rural renaissance took place in the 1970s.

Recessions in the 1980s and 2000s put a stop to rural population increases, Egan-Robertson said.

Wisconsin also has faced a slowdown in natural increase — the difference between births and deaths — as well as negative numbers in net domestic outmigration.

"You look at who's most likely to be the ones who are the movers: It's younger people in their 20s and 30s," Egan-Robertson said. "The anecdotal evidence is you hear about younger people moving out of the state. And then eventually the statistics catch up with what's happening anecdotally and you do see some outflow."

The decline of rural populations in Wisconsin can have far-reaching effects, UW-Madison professor Kathy Cramer wrote in her book, "The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker," that was excerpted for a Cap Times cover story this month.

"Funding for education was an issue, too," she wrote of interactions with a social group in a small central Wisconsin town. "Why? Because rural communities get the short end of the stick, they were saying. The Wisconsin 'funding formula' meant that revenues are shared across school districts, but wealthier communities can spend more than the state allocation by using revenues gathered through local property taxes. As the population in rural places dwindles, the possibility of school consolidation increases, and the identity of a town — its schools — dry up and blow away."

As a whole, Wisconsin's population growth of 1.48 percent between 2010 and 2015 ranked 39th among the states, the Applied Population Lab found.

The APL cited the worsening domestic migration trends as the biggest reason for the state's slow growth.

"Wisconsin has, and has had for a while, a little bit of a migration problem," Applied Population Lab researcher and social epidemiologist Malia Jones said in a Cap Times Q&A last month. "We're experiencing brain drain, especially in rural areas. Young people are leaving rural communities and going to big population centers like Chicago. We invest a lot in educating our kids, and then they grow up, they don't see a lot of opportunity in Wisconsin and they're leaving.

"So population growth is stagnant. We're not growing, which is a challenge from an economic perspective. We need young people to enter the workforce to support aging populations. And we're also experiencing some level of brain drain in terms of young, skilled people leaving."

Below are views of the population change map for counties in metropolitan, micropolitan or neither category.

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.