Wisconsin’s Modest Population Growth

2010-17 Census numbers capture patterns of urban growth and rural losses.

By , WisContext - Jun 7th, 2018 10:42 am
Just over half of Wisconsin's counties experienced population growth over 2010-17, based on U.S. Census figures, with counties shaded aqua gaining residents and those shaded blue losing them. Most of the gains are in the central and southern parts of the state, while many rural areas have lost population. Illustration by Scott Gordon and Kristian Knutsen.

Just over half of Wisconsin’s counties experienced population growth over 2010-17, based on U.S. Census figures, with counties shaded aqua gaining residents and those shaded blue losing them. Most of the gains are in the central and southern parts of the state, while many rural areas have lost population. Illustration by Scott Gordon and Kristian Knutsen.

It’s a time of profound change for Wisconsin’s population — where it’s concentrated, where it’s moving, which age groups and racial and ethnic origins it reflects, and what kinds of lives all residents are seeking to live. Demographers project that over the next several decades, Wisconsinites will be increasingly concentrated in urban areas and less dense nearby places, while the state’s most rural regions become more sparse and their populations age. These transitions are already in motion, and figures the U.S. Census Bureau released in December 2017 reflect just how much can change in just seven years.

This particular dataset, titled “Estimates of the Components of Resident Population Change: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2017,” shows Wisconsin as a whole gaining 108,195 residents during that time span, an increase of about 1.9 percent. But what’s far more revealing is how the patterns of population change — births, deaths, migration in and out — break down around different parts of the state.

Wisconsin Public Television’s Here & Now addressed some of the Census highlights in a June 1, 2018 segment.

So far in the 2010s, the projected population decrease in rural Wisconsin is indeed happening. Adams, Ashland, Iron and Rusk counties all lost four percent or more of their population between April 2010 and July 2017. Except for Iron County, each sustained the demographic one-two punch of deaths outpacing births and more people moving out of the county than into it. Iron County had 245 more deaths than births, which was offset a bit by a net positive number of 93 people moving in over the seven-year span. Adams County experienced a dramatic disparity between births (954) and deaths (1,824) whereas most of Ashland and Rusk counties’ population loss is due to people moving away. Each of these four rural counties experienced a different balance of factors, which in turns indicates slightly different stories — social, economic, and otherwise — within a broader trend of rural population loss.

The state’s two most populous counties, while still growing, saw very different shifts. Dane County gained 48,341 residents in the seven year period, with 26,370 more people moving in than moving out. Over that same time, Milwaukee County gained 4,349 residents. One reason that increase is so modest is that the county experienced a negative “net migration” — subtract people moving out from people moving in, and the resulting number is -37,409.

Meanwhile, Waukesha County, Wisconsin’s third most populous, saw a population increase of 10,685, with respectable gains from both births exceeding deaths — “natural increase,” in the parlance of demography — and people moving into the county. The biggest population loss in sheer numbers was Manitowoc County, whose population dropped by 2,267 between April 2010 and July 2017. That’s about a 2.8 percent drop, not insignificant but not as large a portion of the county’s population as it was in some of Wisconsin’s more rural counties; Manitowoc County still has nearly 80,000 residents.

A single year of U.S. Census data covering July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, offers a shorter-term comparison. Over that time, Wisconsin’s population growth was also modest, in keeping with the longer-term trend.

One difference between the seven-year (2010-17) comparison and the overlapping one-year (2016-17) numbers is that the former shows the state as a whole experiencing negative total migration, while the latter shows more people moving into the state than out. Additionally, areas that have taken a hit over the course of the decade — and perhaps seen population loss amid the fallout of the Great Recession — showed some short-term gains.

For instance, Sheboygan County saw a net loss of 166 residents between 2010 and 2017, but between 2016 and 2017 its population actually grew by 227. David Egan-Robertson, a demographer with the University of Wisconsin Applied Population Lab, pointed out to Wisconsin Public Radio in March 2018 that such numbers could indicate a bit of healthy pickup for manufacturing, which is a big part of Sheboygan County’s economy.

In some senses the numbers for 2016-17 are a bit more promising than the long-term ones for the seven-year span starting in 2010, but evidence remains of a profound long-term shift in rural Wisconsin’s population.

Wisconsin’s Modest, Uneven Population Growth So Far In The 2010s was originally published on WisContext which produced the article in a partnership between Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and Cooperative Extension.

Categories: WisContext

17 thoughts on “Wisconsin’s Modest Population Growth”

  1. Terry says:

    All the farms went broke by me up north long ago. The last one remaining just went under. My neighbor’s kids all moved to Oregon and Washington to prosper in the booming cannabis market out west. All that is left for most young people in Career Politician Scott Walker’s Wisconsin is poverty, unemployment, hopelessness and alcoholism. Who could ever blame them or thousands of other good, hard working, loving, caring people for fleeing. $7.50 part-time no benefits slave wage Chinese jobs at FoxCON doesn’t cut it up north. People want freedom, opportunity, entrepreneurship and economic prosperity. People want social and economic freedom, neither of which are available in Walker and Republican’s regressive, backwards, broke ass Wisconsin. We need to join the modern civilized world and build a real economy and embrace social inclusive policies and economic freedom for ALL people in Wisconsin, black, white, gay, straight, male or female, not just bend over for Walker and republican’s corruption, their disgusting gerrymandering, their FoxCON Corporate Welfare schemes or their dirty Dark Money pay to play political schemes.

    Dump Walker!
    Legalize cannabis!
    Pave the damn roads!
    Fund our schools!
    Stop blaming the poor, women and minorities for Walker’s ineptitudes!
    Let’s build a real economy and keep this generation of young people here in Wisconsin, not force them to flee to the West Coast .

  2. tom says:

    If I were just getting out of high school or college in WI now, I would be out of Walker’s backward shit hole faster than you could imagine. Walker’s record on freedom of religion, lifestyle, sexual preference, gender equality, environmental protections and mass transit is disgusting. I wouldn’t want to ruled by a bunch of corporate pigs who thrive on Walker’s pay-for-play behavior. Vote Walker, Voss, Fitzgerald, and leaders at WMC out. Take back our state!

  3. LenaTaylorNeedsToResign says:

    I’m hopeful after Governor Walker wins again this fall, that will spur another round of Democrat exits from the state, hopefully to Minnesota and Illinois!

  4. Dumbledore says:

    Population trends, whether natural or through migration, are very much a factor of economic decisions and it’s easy to see the trend in Wisconsin.

    Yet those so-called conservatives who supposedly argue for free economic markets now argue to provide public support to prop up these areas that people are leaving. This includes additional funding for rural school districts to transport students, shifts in highway funding from urban freeways to rural two-lane roads, public support for broadband (clearly a market-provided service) and welfare waiver policies that favor rural residents.

    As I mentioned in another column, the people in the declining growth counties are politically shouting “Get off my lawn.” Well guess what – their neighbors are getting off their lawns and leaving entirely, either for better opportunities in places like Madison or out of Wisconsin entirely.

  5. michael says:

    As a transplant to WI, the residents don’t appreciate the state’s assets. Milwaukee is loaded with gorgeous, tree lined streets with beautiful period revival housing, all a sub-30 minute bus/bike ride into downtown. It’s a got a surprisingly dynamic downtown sprawling for miles from Mitchell all the way up to North Ave. The parks are fantastic; the tennis courts are superb. The neighborhoods are great. The amount of cultural programming is overwhelming. The city is the golden goose.

    We’ve got to rebuild the neighborhood centers in the poorer parts of the city that were torn down by shortsighted in road widening boondoggles. We need to invest modestly into transportation alternatives into downtown, so the place isn’t so covered in commuter parking. We need a frequent train service between Madison & Chicago via Milwaukee, since the Hiawatha gets sold out way too much and there’s an obvious need for a decent connection between the state’s two biggest economies. And we need to tear out 794 between the Marquette interchange and lake, because putting a mile of elevated highway through the most valuable land in the state is a really dumb idea. We could do this all for less than $2B (pocket change in the scheme of things), and Milwaukee would be the by far the best city of its size in the country.

  6. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    And note that many of those areas losing population up North also were a large number of the 14 counties that lost jobs in 2017.

    When you defund public schools, local governments and spoil the environment in exchange to major tax-funded handouts to campaign contributors, this us a natural result. It’ll only change when you change out the GOPs at the Capitol.

  7. DemCo says:

    Love your comments, michael, spot on.

  8. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Wisconsin is not growing fast because of the anti business attitude exhibited by the Left under Doyle and presently under the left antics antics the best thing ever to happen to SE Wisconsin: Foxconn.
    Foxconn will provide 50,000 jobs, good jobs, after the multiplier. we will have to build 20,000 or more housing to take care of the new people that the Left does not want, unless they come here illegally or are MS 13.
    They will put our inner city people to work and the left is opposed: Nuts.

  9. PMD says:

    LOL!!!! Wisconsin’s population isn’t growing because of a man who hasn’t been governor for nearly a decade. Spoken like a true old white man living in the past. My preschooler is smarter than you.

  10. Dumbledore says:

    @WCD – Interesting how this supposedly “anti-business attitude” by the “Left” has yielded some of the fastest growing private sector businesses anywhere in Dane County, which Wisconsin conservatives never want to acknowledge.

    Conservatives today cannot grasp the new paradigm. In the past, people would move to a new location to take a job and then make do with the social, environmental and cultural surroundings. Today, people find a place to live based on desirable social, environmental and cultural surroundings and then find a job once they get there – and are willing to live below their means until they do. People are attracted to the culture and amenities in Dane County and keep moving there and then latch on to jobs with places like Epic or American Family.

    Want to increase population and employment in Wisconsin? Target public investment in making the entire state a place that people want to live in. Then the you will increase the labor force and employment – not by artificially propping up specific industries and thinking that people will flock to those places.

  11. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    dane county is all govt, leaching all the rest of us. Fox River valley, SE Wiscosnin is all business.

  12. Adam says:


    Ha ha. You are a delusional space cadet. Dane County is destroying the rest of the state in PRIVATE sector job and population growth.
    Do you think everyone is moving here for all these great new govt. jobs that SKW and the GOP have been creating? LOL. They have been hacking away at both total jobs and compensation for 8 years straight. You are delusional old man,because by far the most ecomonomically succesful and vibrant county in the state will also be voting against SKW and the GOP by a 4-1 margin this fall! Does not fit your narrow worldview does it.

  13. PMD says:

    There’s also a huge university and a thriving tech scene WCD, among other things. Not to mention SE Wisconsin is quite blue. You are not smart, but you are old.

  14. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    That is what I said everything is attache to the govt: Universities, hospitals the research all is attached to the public dollars, Much different then other areas of the state that are sending money to Dane to fuel their growth.

  15. Dumbledore says:

    WCD – Adam and PMD are entirely correct. The BLS statistics for the Madison region show total non-farm employment in the county has grown by 13% since 2010 but government employment has dropped by 1%. Non-farm job growth in the Milwaukee region (including the WOW counties) from 2010 to present is about 8.6%.

    Is Madison dependent on government and university jobs? Not much more so than SE Wisconsin. BLS stats show that government, education and health care categories account for a combined 34% of all employment in the Madison region, but the Milwaukee region (again including WOW) isn’t that different with about 30% of all employment being in government, education and health care.

  16. PMD says:

    And once again facts get in the way of right-wing nonsense. Same story, different day.

  17. Terry says:

    @WCD, So if it’s Jim Doyle and the lefts fault Wisconsin is struggling after 8 years of Walker and complete republican rule, why are all the young people leaving for California, Washington State Oregon etc?? These are the most progressive states in the country and their economies are literally running circles around Walker’s broke ass Wisconsin. Why do progressive Democrat states have awesome, booming economies with tons of social and economic freedom while Walker’s Wisconsin and other far right-wing states have struggling economies and always attacking people’s personal freedom? Why are all the conservative republican states all the biggest moochers of federal dollars, year after year and thus have to be propped up by thriving progressive states? Why are all the thriving, booming innovative businesses and industries located in progressive blue states while Wisconsin taxpayers are forced by Walker and republicans to subsidize crappy Chinese jobs by handing over 4.5 Billion of our tax dollars in Corporate Welfare to a Chinese company? If Wisconsin were thriving under Career Politician Scott Walker and republicans we wouldn’t have to do that! I canassure you the kids aren’t stupid. They simply demand more economic and social freedom, both of which have been destroyed by Walker and relublicans in Wisconsin.
    Let me guess this is all Jim Doyle’s fault, or Obama’s, Hillary’s, hell it’s Fightin Bob La Follette’s fault! Republicans never take any personal responsibilty, even after being in complete control (due to their corrupt gerrymandering and cheating) for almost a decade. It’s always somebody else’s fault to Walker and the GOP. Wisconsin republicans are the most crooked, corrupt scapegoating, finger pointing gaggle of lying, cheating, racist, misogynistic, scheming, Nazi and fascist enabling, duplicitous rubes and charlatans you will ever find! We must vote these freedom and liberty trampling, economic prosperity destroying, lifelong Big Government mooching, petty tyrants and Big Corporate republican sell-outs out of office once and for all in November! Get out and vote and bring ten friends with you!

    Dump Walker 2018
    Dump Vos 2018
    Dump Vukmir 2018
    Dump Fitzgerald 2018
    Dump Schimel 2018
    Dump ALL republicans in 2018!!!

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