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Report: Growing number of state's rural counties are losing residents
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Report: Growing number of state's rural counties are losing residents

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Two-thirds of Wisconsin’s rural counties saw their populations drop between 2010-18, according to a new report.

The study by Forward Analytics, a division of the Wisconsin Counties Association, points to a shift in Wisconsin from slow population growth in the state’s rural counties into a growing net loss of residents.

“The economic consequences of depopulation are real — a shrinking workforce, fewer jobs in the county, fewer businesses, and slower income growth,” Forward Analytics Director Dale Knapp said in a statement.

Rural counties in the report are defined as those that are not part of a metropolitan area. The report identifies 46 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties as rural.

From 2000 to 2010, 44% of Wisconsin’s rural counties experienced population loss, compared with 47% nationwide. None of the state’s rural counties had population loss in the decade from 1990 to 2000, while 30% of the nation’s rural counties did.

“The pattern of rural counties growing more slowly than urban ones has a long history,” Knapp said in a statement. “But what is occurring now is the slow rural growth of the past is turning to decline.”

Knapp added that the majority of Wisconsin’s population movement includes people moving from rural counties to urban ones, rather than leaving the state altogether.

“Most of the movement is within the state,” he said.

The report also points to a stark contrast in economic growth between the state’s counties with the fastest-growing populations and those with the biggest population losses.

From 2010 to 2018, the 10% of counties with the biggest population gains saw a 5% median growth in labor force, a 13.1% growth in jobs and an 8.5% increase in businesses.

In the same span, the 10% of counties with the biggest population loss experienced a 14.1% median decline in workforce, a 3.9% drop in jobs and a 5.5% decline in businesses.

“While rural depopulation in the state has not been as severe as elsewhere, policymakers should not be complacent,” Knapp said. “There are few signs that this trend will slow or reverse, and Wisconsin’s experience could worsen over the next decade.”

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