The following is part of my news analysis series for the Thursday, March 11, 2010 edition of the Scenic Range News Forum of Itasca County, Minn.:
For the Iron Range, demographic change is the challenge
By Aaron J. Brown
The demographics on Minnesota’s Iron Range, trending toward an older society with fewer young families, may have turned an Olympic gold medal to silver.
“It’s the reason the United States lost that hockey game to Canada,” said state demographer Tom Gillaspy. “There weren’t enough Iron Rangers up there to play.”
Gillaspy is kidding about the 2010 Olympic Hockey Final in Vancouver, but not really. The loss of young families explains not just fewer Iron Range youth taking part in the sport that made the region famous, but also declines to school enrollment, political clout and employment. In short, nearly all of the region’s problems can be summed up by looking at a sheet of Census data.
On the central and eastern Iron Range in St. Louis County people are leaving. A composite of U.S. Census data shows most east Range towns losing about 26 percent of their population since 1980. Here in Itasca County, on the western Iron Range, the population has grown. But people arrive in different ways and to different places compared to when immigrant miners and loggers arrived 100 years ago.
It’s a mistake, however, to assume that the region’s prospects are solely related to population. In fact, Itasca County defies conventional wisdom about the Iron Range having gained 24 percent in population since 1970, including an increase each of the past ten years according to U.S. Census estimates. The change, according to Gillaspy, comes in the kind of households being established in the county. Itasca County has become older and more rural.
Gillaspy said that while many focus on population as the most important indicator of a region’s demographic health, the better indicators are the number of households and the people per household.
For instance, consider that the largest Range towns have lost 10 percent of their households since 1970.
“When you lose 10 percent of households that means vacant housing and lower housing prices,” said Gillaspy. “Vacant houses get torn down and then you have a vacant lot. You have less human activity and more social and health care needs for older households.
“When I see a number like that I see all sorts of things happening,” said Gillaspy. “It suggests whether or not lawns are being maintained. It indicates the income and attitudes of the people living there. It’s sometimes hard to convince local officials that I can see all that in the numbers, but I can.”
In another example, Keewatin declined from 2.55 persons per household in 1980 to 2.14 in 2008. Bovey fell from 2.45 persons per household in 1980 to 2.12 in 2008. These represent 10-12 percent declines. Meantime, the school districts that serve these two towns – Greenway and Nashwauk-Keewatin –both report an approximate 40 percent enrollment decline in that time, an astounding correlation.
Mark Adams, the superintendent of both the Greenway and N-K districts, deals with the effects of these numbers every day.
“The population growth we’ve seen hasn’t been in new families,” said Adams. “People often aren’t bringing children with them so it doesn’t change the dynamic. The question we face every day is how do we raise the academic bar in a model that won’t include new revenue for the foreseeable future?”
Indeed, local schools have faced a combination of challenges recently. School bond referendums are harder to pass in communities with older residents and fewer children. Budget cuts and funding formula changes have reduced state allocations. And the economy just endured its worst year since the Great Range Recession of 1982.
“This is not a short run event,” said Gillaspy. “It’s not like the Iron Range fell on hard times just this year. What you’re seeing now is a different event, the long term outcome of an aging society with not enough young folks to build a population.
“There will be jobs,” said Gillaspy. “There will be economic development that will stabilize things. It’s going to create several dozen jobs for every hundred lost, though. You don’t need nearly as many people to mine the same amount of ore. It used to take hundreds to run a steel mill, now it’s not quite dozens in some cases. Productivity has changed everything.”
Indeed the story of today’s Iron Range has been building since the steel recession of the early 1980s. Older residents pass away after long, full lives of working the mines, raising families and propelling the commerce of our towns. Unlike previous declines in the Range economy, families are smaller and the economic recoveries include fewer jobs. Young people leave for jobs, for lovers, for lack of excitement or simply in frustration. Meantime, people moving to Itasca County often seek a quiet, unchanging, inexpensive retirement destination.
Thus, the challenges facing schools, towns and the economy may only be solved by adjusting to the reality of these numbers. Only then can the region’s leaders begin the arduous task of reversing them.
“We have to redefine our communities on broader scales,” said Adams. “Our expectations need to include everything it takes to get young people ready for college and the economy.
“This might be an opportunity in disguise,” Adams said. “By working across the county we might still be able cut costs and provide 21st century classrooms. But we have to reorganize.”
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and college communication instructor. His book is “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”