Apr 19, 2023 - News

While Des Moines metro grows, Iowa's rural areas dwindle

Change in Iowa population, 2020 to 2022
Data: S&P Global Mobility; Chart: Axios Visuals

Between 2020-'22, Iowa's rural population continued to experience the biggest share of the state's population decline while urban areas grew, according to new Census data.

Driving the news: Our state's population grew .31% overall, staying relatively stagnant in comparison to fast-growing Idaho and the sudden drops in states like New York and California.

  • While growth in Iowa's urban centers kept the population neutral, some rural areas experienced up to a 3% decline.

State of play: At the start of the pandemic, sociologists questioned if rural America would experience a revival as more jobs became remote, cheaper homes grew more attractive and families looked to escape dense cities.

Yes, but: That never panned out here.

Zoom in: For more than 100 years, Iowa's urban areas have pulled from rural populations.

  • Higher-paying jobs have shifted away from agriculture and manufacturing, leading young workers to cities and aging small towns, Peter Orazem, an economist at ISU, tells Axios.
  • The pandemic did not shift that long-standing trend, Orazem says.

For example, Dallas County continues to boom, experiencing a 7.5% population increase from 2020-'22.

  • The county containing West Des Moines, Waukee, Urbandale and Clive gained nearly 8,000 people within those two years.
  • The median age: 35.

Meanwhile, Monona County in western Iowa experienced the state's biggest population decline, shrinking nearly 3% and losing 400 people.

  • The median age: 47.

The intrigue: Despite all of it, unlike other states like Nebraska, Iowa's uniquely maintained a larger rural population than other states because of the easy commute into cities for rural workers, Orazem says.

  • Job centers and metros are also dispersed evenly around the state, with Cedar Rapids in the east and Sioux City and Council Bluffs in the west.

Between the lines: Immigration and refugees have helped sustain rural areas, while domestic migration has drawn people away.

  • In 2022, Iowa lost nearly 7,300 people to domestic migration, but gained nearly 7,300 international migrants, according to the census data.
  • The state and U.S. need to develop policies to ease workforce immigration if they want to slow rural Iowa's bleeding population, Orazem says.

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