Analysis: Four Wyoming takeaways from new census numbers
As the Mountain West experienced a population boom over the last decade, Wyoming’s growth lagged, according to U.S. Census numbers released this week, with the Equality State among the slowest-growing states in the country.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Wyoming’s population experienced the nation’s seventh-slowest rate of growth over the past decade, adding 13,225 people for a population of 576,851 as of April 1, 2020. That came in the second-slowest growth period in U.S. history.
Wyoming’s growth of about 2.3% fell short of the national population growth rate of 7.4 percent. It also fell short of the population of 578,759 estimated in the 2019 American Communities Survey. For comparison, Wyoming’s population grew by more than 10 percent in the previous decade.
The numbers also make Wyoming an anomaly in the Mountain West. Many of the states flanking Wyoming — Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Montana — were among the fastest-growing states in the country, while others, like the Dakotas, also experienced rapid growth. Nebraska grew at the national average.
Though municipal-level data from the Census Bureau is not yet available, projections and population shifts in other states offer an early indication of what Wyoming stands to lose or gain as governments evaluate the results of the nationwide survey.
Here are four takeaways.
Young people, workers left in droves
Wyoming’s population growth could have been nearly twice as large, according to numbers provided by the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis, had fewer people left.
Wyoming experienced a natural population increase of about 25,000 people during the decade, with the 72,000 births far outweighing the 47,000 deaths, according to state numbers. Approximately 11,800 more residents left Wyoming than moved into the state between 2010 and 2020, however — due largely to recent downturns in the state’s energy industry. Many of those people likely moved to surrounding states, Chief Economist Wenlin Liu wrote in an analysis of the numbers.
“Change in employment always tends to drive and lead the change in migration for Wyoming, and generally speaking, people tend to move to areas where economies are vibrant,” Liu wrote. “In addition, the economy nationwide, particularly in neighboring states such as Colorado, Utah, and Idaho showed strong expansions, which attracted many Wyoming energy workers and residents during the second half of the decade.”
Things grew even worse throughout the last year as the pandemic and declining energy sectors delivered a one-two punch. Wyoming’s year-over-year job losses in the second and third quarters of 2020 “have been greater than at any other point during the last 20 years,” according to numbers the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services released earlier this month.
The majority of people who left, according to state data, were likely between 25 and 40 years old. Wyoming’s millennial population — those born from 1981 to 1996 — decreased by an estimated 7,681 individuals, or 6%, in the second half of the decade, according to a 2019 Department of Workforce Services study.
Only Vermont, West Virginia and Rhode Island saw greater declines in millennials during that period, while surrounding states like Colorado, Idaho and Utah saw their millennial populations increase between 5% and 15%.
Voter power unchanged
As the nation’s least-populous state, residents of Wyoming arguably have more influence on the national conversation than voters anywhere else. According to an analysis of electoral college votes by the voter reform organization FairVote, a vote by a Wyomingite in a presidential election is worth three times as much as a vote by a resident of New York.
Though nearly three dozen cities around the country boast a larger population than Wyoming, the state still has just as many members of Congress as more populous states like Delaware and North and South Dakota.
The census can trigger changes in congressional representation based on a state’s growth or diminishment. In the latest reapportionment following the 2020 census, Republican-controlled states like Montana and Texas gained seats in their share of the 435-member Congress while blue states like New York lost them.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the scale will shift further the right, giving Wyoming a better chance at impacting the national political conversation.
In many states, state legislatures manage redistricting. That means states could redistrict to benefit the party that controls them, even if, like New York, they stand to lose a congressional seat.
Using U.S. Census numbers, members of the Legislature will meet later this year or next to begin the redistricting process, using changes in population in different areas to determine how residents will be represented.
With local data not yet available, it is unclear which districts stand to lose or gain representatives in the next Legislature, particularly given when the census was conducted. The count occurred between April and October 2020, as the pandemic upended many municipalities’ economies. Last summer, Casper’s unemployment rate was significantly higher than Cheyenne’s, for example, while energy-centric locales like Campbell, Sweetwater and Sublette Counties also experienced significant increases in the unemployment rate.
The Wyoming Constitution requires districts to reflect the common characteristics of the communities they represent, meaning that places like the Wind River Indian Reservation are often considered first in the redistricting process. Urban centers then come next, leaving rural expanses of the state largely up for grabs, resulting in districts like the massive House District 47.
An incomplete view
However, Wyoming’s slight uptick in population likely does not reflect the full extent of an influx of “COVID refugees” into the state during the past year, according to Liu.
Housing markets in locales like Sheridan, Cody and Lander have become increasingly competitive over the past year, according to reports. Some of that may be due to more out-of-state residents looking to Wyoming to capitalize on remote work or to escape from crowds or social strife, observers say.
“The April 2020 population counts occurred about right before or at the beginning of the COVID, so it probably reflected little about the migration during the pandemic,” Liu wrote in an email.
Increases in population might not necessarily be a good thing for Wyoming either. The state’s tax structure is still heavily dependent on minerals and, with few mechanisms to raise revenue off of its citizens, groups like the Wyoming Taxpayer’s Association have argued new residents could actually cost the state more in services than they generate in revenue.
“Lots of convos re: our low growth rate,” Cheyenne’s former mayor, Marian Orr, tweeted Tuesday. “I learned first-hand as mayor of the largest city in the state — we can’t afford to grow. The avg family of 3 pays $3k/yr in taxes for $30k/yr in gov services from police, fire, schools, roads, etc. And that anti-growth scale is by design.”
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