Data Wonk

Wisconsin’s Disappearing Counties

Rural counties losing population. Immigrants would help -- and might be welcomed.

By - Apr 17th, 2019 11:46 am
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A dairy farm in Wisconsin. Photo by William Garrett / Creative Commons.

A dairy farm in Wisconsin. Photo by William Garrett / Creative Commons.

In one of his recent tweets, Donald Trump, argued that the US has no room for immigrants:

Mexico must apprehend all illegals and not let them make the long march up to the United States, or we will have no other choice than to Close the Border and/or institute Tariffs. Our Country is FULL!

In a speech to Jewish Republicans this month, Trump picked up on the same theme. As reported by the New York Times:

Our system’s full; our country’s full,” Mr. Trump said, speaking to an audience that included descendants of Holocaust survivors, Jews in red skullcaps emblazoned with “Trump” in white thread and people carrying Israeli flags. “You can’t come in. Our country is full. What can we do? We can’t handle any more. Our country’s full. You can’t come in, I’m sorry.

Is Trump right? Are we in danger of filling up our empty spaces?

Contrary to Trump’s pronouncements, the truth is that much of Wisconsin is becoming emptier. Every year, the US Census Bureau estimates the population of every county in the US. Between 2010 and 2017, 38 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, a majority, lost residents.

The next graph plots the Wisconsin counties’ population. Their percentage population growth (or loss) is shown on the vertical axis and the counties’ 2017 population on the horizontal. In order to plot Milwaukee, Dane, and Waukesha counties’ population on the same chart as Menominee’s, I used a logarithmic scale for the populations. Thus, each vertical line is 10 times the previous line. Counties shown above the black horizontal line at 0% gained population; those below the line lost population. On average, the smaller a county’s population, the more likely it continues to shrink.

WI County Populations-Growth vs Size

WI County Populations-Growth vs Size

Wisconsin is not unique. A recent study from the Economic Innovation Group, which aims to build a more entrepreneurial and innovative U.S. economy, found that about half of U.S. counties are now losing population.

The next graph shows the age distribution of residents in Wisconsin counties that lost population since 2010: baby boomers aged 50 to 65 make up the biggest chunk of people while the younger millennial population is much smaller. This suggests that, unless these counties find ways to attract new residents, further population decline is baked in. Assuming no migration into or out of these counties, in ten years, the number of people in their fifties will drop from 192,000 to 146,000, the current number of people in their 40s.

Age Distribution in Wisconsin Counties Losing Population

Age Distribution in Wisconsin Counties Losing Population

Consider adults between the ages of 20 and 44. Only eleven of Wisconsin’s 72 counties showed growth in this group. As the next graph shows, 61 of the state’s counties, including Milwaukee, whose overall population has grown, experienced a decline in this cohort.

Growth: Ages 20-44 vs All

Growth: Ages 20-44 vs All

Would increased immigration help reverse the decline of Wisconsin’s shrinking counties? There is an overwhelming consensus among economists that an increase in highly skilled immigrants would benefit the United States economy. There is more disagreement when it comes to low-skilled immigrants, reflecting a concern that an increase could depress the compensation of native low-skilled workers.

The report from the Economic Innovation Group advocates for a “Heartland Visa,” aimed at encouraging high-skilled immigrants to cities, such as Detroit, that have suffered extreme population decline. The report singles out Detroit’s Wayne County, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, and St. Louis County. Milwaukee is not mentioned because both the city and county have had small population increases.

In Wisconsin, most of the counties suffering population decline are rural with economies based on agriculture. The US Labor Department’s National Agricultural Workers Survey found that seven in 10 workers were born in Mexico, and only one in four was born in the United States. Thus, an increase in low-skilled immigrants, particularly those with an agricultural background, such as many of those fleeing gang violence in Central America, would appear to have the best fit with the needs of many of the counties suffering population decline.

But would they be welcomed in these counties? As the next chart shows, many of these counties voted for Scott Walker in the 2018 election (all the red dots at the right are counties that supported him).

Growth vs Walker vote

Growth vs Walker vote

Given these numbers and the fact that Walker tied his fortunes closely to Trump, it might be assumed that immigrants from Latin America would face an unfriendly environment in rural Wisconsin; that as with Trump they would be considered “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.” There is strong evidence to the contrary, however. One of the Marquette Law School polls last October asked what to do about undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the U.S. The respondents were offered three choices, that they be:

  1. Allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.
  2. Allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers, but not to apply for U.S. citizenship.
  3. Required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S.

The third choice is basically the Trump plan. Yet only 15 percent of everyone, and 26 percent of Republicans, chose it. The next graph shows the answers depending whether they lived in urban, suburban, or rural areas. Again, even though the Trump plan got more votes from rural dwellers, it still was supported by just 20 percent of them.

Undocumented immigrants should:

Undocumented immigrants should:

When responses are analyzed by the region of Wisconsin they come from, a similar pattern emerges. Responses are less immigrant-friendly outside Milwaukee and Madison, but are still far short of a majority for the Trumpist position of making them leave the US.

Undocumented immigrants should:

Undocumented immigrants should:

Yet Trump continues to try to use immigrants as a threat, as exemplified by this tweet threatening to punish the so-called “sanctuary cities”:

Due to the fact that Democrats are unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws, we are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities only…. The Radical Left always seems to have an Open Borders, Open Arms policy – so this should make them very happy!

Trump is clear that he views this threat as a way to punish states and cities that don’t support him. The odd thing is that If Trump’s threat were carried out in a legal fashion, it could easily end up strengthening the economies of these “sanctuary cities,” helping Democratic-leaning urban areas.

Meanwhile the half of counties—both in Wisconsin and nationally—with shrinking populations would be left to face declining economies.

Categories: Politics

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