COLUMN: The numbers don’t lie

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, March 27, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The numbers don’t lie
By Aaron J. Brown

The 2010 U.S. Census released its report for the state of Minnesota earlier this month. The findings were not a surprise. Implications abound for those of us who live in northern Minnesota.

The state’s population rose slightly. From 2000 to 2010 Minnesota gained almost 400,000 people for a total of about 5.3 million. The state kept its eight Congressional districts, the only of the Great Lakes states to avoid losing at least one. Minnesota still trails the national average for population growth, but is among the leaders in Rust Belt states — a factor that could work to our advantage in the next 10 years.

The Eighth Congressional District in east central and northeastern Minnesota more or less held its own. The district is only 2,649 people short of the ideal, less than half a percent, which means there might not be much change after this year’s redistricting. U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Lindstrom) might face his first re-election battle in roughly the same competitive district he won in 2010, a strong GOP year.

Duluth showed almost no change. There, Mayor Don Ness has pledged a mission to increase the city’s population to 90,000 by 2020. The work ahead in that goal lies piled up like timbers, though the city is making headway in efforts to modernize it’s economy, a key step. Range towns should pursue a similar goal of population stability, a prospect that will require planning beyond hope for new, big projects to save us.

The cities of the Iron Range mostly lost population by percentages in the single digits. Hibbing lost 710 residents, about 4 percent. Keewatin and Virginia lost a similar percentage. Chisholm’s population didn’t change much, while Nashwauk and Taconite showed modest growth.

The townships around Range cities gained population, as they have steadily for more than 30 years. This is one trend worth watching as it will surely affect life in this region. The increase in rural residents changes our sense of community. Many of the new country residents are at or near retirement age, which means the increases don’t help local schools. As a rural Itasca County resident I see some of the changes myself. The income disparity and technological infrastructure of these townships must be improved if this growth is to become anything more than retirement-driven. Further, as the cost of gas increases this decade, this rural growth could halt as people strive to live closer to work and school.

Itasca County grew by more than 1,000 people while the much larger St. Louis County shrunk by a couple hundred. Many of the Range towns that did grow were in Itasca County, benefiting from the influx of people in the region’s western corners. That only reinforces that the regional growth owes as much to lakes, woods and schools as it does to mines and classic Range cities like Hibbing or Virginia. The next 10 years present a tremendous opportunity for northern Minnesota to stabilize or even grow.

As we hear fervent discussion of the census and what it could mean for parochial concerns like federal funding and legislative redistricting, let us also consider this. Our population numbers present for us a clear picture of the challenges facing leaders and citizens in northern Minnesota.

No wave of a magic wand will increase our region’s population or stem the aging of our demographics, which brings with it economic and political pitfalls. The battle for the Iron Range’s future will be as much demographic as it is political. Regardless of political label, the true forces at odds will be those who seek a continuation of our mining and natural resource economy to the detriment of all else and those who seek economic and social diversity, a process that could divert political attention away from mining.

This will be a titanic confrontation that will determine much more than the 2020 or 2030 census figures. This demographic duel will determine the relevance of an entire place and its people. That’s a lot to read from a few charts from the Census Bureau, but it’s there nonetheless. The numbers don’t lie.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.


  1. Aaron, good article. Could you please list what economic diversity you’d like to see up here. I’m all for jobs, so men and women can feed their families and feel the sense of pride that comes with honest work.

  2. The east central Minnesota town I live in had a population of 101 when we moved here 10 years ago. As of the last census, the population was 102, which means more people are moving in than are moving on, including longtime residents who have passed away.

    Industries that involve telecommuting would be ideal for this region, because so much of the time is spent driving. Telework is more time efficient and energy efficient too.

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