Up north, it’s more change than migration

Census speculation continues, and I’m starting to reach a bold new conclusion about our numeric fate in northern Minnesota. Demography reinforces attitudes. Attitudes can change demography. I’ve written a column on the region’s census numbers that will run this Sunday, but I’m already finding some new content for future writings on the topic.

For instance, check out this interactive map from Forbes magazine. Modern journalism schools shouldn’t pass anyone who doesn’t know how to make stuff like this, or at least assemble the necessary data for a programmer. In essence you click on a county and it shows how many people left there for which other counties between 2000 and 2010. Some hot nerd action here, folks.

Maps show St. Louis County and Itasca County migration statistics, with some surprising findings. First, St. Louis County’s migration trend isn’t as awful as you’d think. I’d hazard that most of this large Duluth/Range county’s losses came from those who flee this mortal coil, not those who move to White Bear Lake as previously believed. Metro area counties like Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka are sending more people north to Itasca than Itasca is losing to them, and St. Louis County is only losing a few dozen more than they are gaining from the same counties.

Our region is losing population? Yeah, a little in some places, mostly Range towns. Everywhere else is holding or growing slightly. More importantly, our region is changing. Our residents are older and less connected to the sort of vibrant economic growth seen here after World War II and in the early 1970s. There are probably a lot fewer school-age children. But there are people here, humans capable of thought and action.

Our population is stagnant, not doomed. Our economy and creative production need only be stagnant if we fail to act. A change in attitude could bring life in northern Minnesota back to its 1970s peak by encouraging migration into the region. This new attitude must welcome new people, use more brainpower than brawn, and accept that our role in the changing world is dependent on our ability to change with the world.

All of this presupposes knowledge of an outside world. That’s why I’m always talking about schools. Baby steps.

(h/t TYWKIWDBI for the Forbes link)


  1. Hey, just keep taxing businesses, taxing those who create jobs, and giving hand outs to anyone who doesn’t feel like working too hard, and you will create a great climate for future job growth in the Iron Range! You cannot sustain a retail business in the area because they can’t compete with Walmart prices. When the folks up North decide to spend a bit more to help their neighbor’s little store succeed, then small businesses can thrive. When they lose the class envy and stop complaining about tax credits going to businesses, then there might be a few jobs for them. When they understand that regulations- including new health care costs- are strangling new businesses, then they might find companies willing to expand to that area. Because the housing prices and cost of living are so low on the Range, newcomers to the area consist of welfare recipients and their EBT cards. As the older generation- those who had a work ethic at one time- die off, the Range will be left with a community of low-income citizens who don’t understand the value of a day’s work. This is what happens in urban areas like Detroit. It’s not going to get better until Rangers wake up to reality.

  2. Well, that sure is a hodge podge of conservative talking points. You know, I respect political differences, but speaking as someone who grew up poor and on MinnesotaCare and who went on to work my way up to the middle class I don’t really appreciate your tone here. I get it. Small government. Deregulation. Fine. Class envy? Bullshit. Detroit? What? Have you been to Detroit? This is a shotgun response. I’d let it go but it spoils the tone of what I’m actually trying to say here, a message that you might actually agree with if you could get over your hangups with the other side and coded language.

  3. So by your own admission, you are a product of the free market, of equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. You would not be where you are had someone put restrictions and regulations on your desire to succeed. Why would you support doing that to others?

  4. Numbers?? Why does everyone get hung up on the numbers??
    I grew up here, left after school. Lived in the “cities” for a bit, and then traveled the country before I moved back to raise a family. IMHO there is no better place to raise one family than in northern Mn.
    It’s the age old problem of growing up on the “Range” there’s nothing to keep the young folks here. Until that changes, anyone can throw out all the numbers they want, and it won’t mean a thing.
    Unfortunately there’s too many people that think the world begins, and ends out their back doors!!! The “range mentality” if you will.
    Wake up people there’s a big world to be seen!!!


  5. @LSM, I think you are mis-characterizing the idea that the left wants “equal outcomes.” A red herring. Equal outcomes might not be possible, but equal opportunity and basic respect for people of all means is. That’s the part that seemed lacking in your original comment.

    No one is putting restrictions on anyone’s “desire to succeed.” That’s paranoia. We are having a debate about the proper way to run a government. I get the sense we might not agree on how to do that, but there are core functions of government that can be run more efficiently and with long term plans in mind, and there’s room to talk about that … Probably not in the comments section of a regional blog post about the census.

    @Joboo, agreed, and it goes back to attitude. You can’t tell a young person to stick around for an average job and no excitement or opportunity. Young people need to feel that living here is a good choice, not a compromise. That’s how I feel, but it’s only because of a couple good breaks, the nature of my work, and our changing technological times that this was possible. For a great number of young Rangers, this is not the case. I posit the goal of changing this for the better. Thanks for your story!

  6. Giving people equal opportunity with as few restrictions as possible IS having basic respect for all. Picking and choosing who will have an opportunity- as in affirmative action or quotas – takes away the word “equality” . No one promises that everyone given the opportunity to succeed will actually do so- yet that is what liberals are trying to accomplish. We continue to create programs, continue to give taxpayer dollars to the SAME groups over and over, hoping that they will finally be able to get ahead. Do you have kids? Is this how you would raise them? Do you ask one of them to do all the work, but have the others get equal allowance? How would that work out in a family…let alone a state or a country? It’s time for Americans to get educated on the Free Market- it’s certainly NOT a perfect system, but it is the only system of government which allows the fewest people to be poor.

  7. You can lose only a little population or stay roughly even while still having a substantial problem. I look at things over here on the Cuyuna Range. Our mines were in serious decline in the 1950s. The only family we’ve got left in the area are retired. My uncle and aunt retired from teaching and moved home and I brought my family back after retiring from the military. But for a substantial portion of the population to require an external income source like that to stay in the area is a problem. And it skews the population age range upward as younger folks leave for work and don’t move back till they’re done working.

  8. I agree with David Gray. The only way to build up a population on the Range is to make it a desirable place for businesses to grow. Right now, the MInnesota taxes are forcing businesses OUT of the state. I know. My own brother’s business moved – which employed 200 people- because it was too expensive to do business here. Why are North and South Dakota thriving? Low taxes. But if we lower taxes, we MUST make cuts. Basic math, basic economics. In the long run, however, getting people off the government dole and into new jobs is good for everyone. Turn welfare recipients into tax payers.

  9. @David, agreed — that is not a sustainable economic situation. We have to generate population that spends money, starts businesses and puts kids in the schools.

    @LSM, Where are you from? Because I’m going to teach my children to move there and go on welfare, the dream of all liberals.

    I am kidding. That is a defense mechanism I use when someone doesn’t care to understand an opinion different than their own.

    We have a higher poverty rate than most other industrialized nations, the highest among children. That’s bad. We also have great wealth and are quite comfortable on average. That’s good.

    The free market system is extraordinary; enormously powerful and beneficial to our people. With this power comes great responsibility. Our interpretations of that responsibility might differ, but unfettered capitalism has failed us as hard and often as responsible capitalism has benefited us.

    Which “groups” are you talking about? Because if we really are talking about government spending, I’d assume that you are talking about older Americans (the recipients of Social Security and most Medicare) and defense contractors. The money going to welfare and, well, whatever else you seem to be talking about, is significant but small compared to SS, Medicare, and defense. Further, cutting off welfare or other social programs would increase our mortality and crime rates, with little effect on our budget (IMHO).

    I’d be much more receptive to a conservative message that recognized the realities of poverty and the federal budget and asked everyone to feel a little simultaneous pain to solve the problem. Being from the Range, you certainly know the social effect of simultaneous pain. It can actually be a good thing in moderation.

    But I don’t think we are talking about the budget. I think you are raising points that could be better attached to the culture wars. I know your experiences growing up affected you in a certain way, and that your beliefs have their own merit. I also grew up on the Range and used my own intuition to get ahead, but attribute a much greater role in my success to public education and the roads that allowed me to get to school and my family to run its busing and transportation businesses. I wasn’t raised “liberal,” so much as prefer to use a small “l” liberal label to describe how I think about new ideas and the capability for life to get better, in politics and most things.

    This is way too much to type, but I just did, so here it is. Apologies to all who find this tiring.

  10. The thing is you can’t genuinely solve poverty by spending money. Sustained chronic poverty requires cultural change and a sufficiently dynamic situation that provides opportunity for that cultural change to produce meaningful results.

    And the European model, which you obliquely reference, is breaking down. I lived in Europe for several years. The average European makes less money and pays higher taxes and higher prices. They do enjoy marginally improved security but that is deteriorating as well.

    Northern Minnesota is resource rich and capital poor. Things which obstruct our ability to exploit our resources obstruct our ability to build a situation where our boys will be able to raise and support families without heading south. That doesn’t mean open day at the store for corporate America but in reality we are a very long ways from that and can make a lot of changes without reaching that point.

    The cooperative effort between the governor and the legislature was a good but modest start. The DFL needs to reembrace the working class and distance itself from urban environmentalists.

  11. David and LSM, I agree totally. I also spent time in Europe and worked for years with folks from many different countries. When we talked government and it’s involvement in peoples lives, they came form a socialism perspective. Most couldn’t stand it and that’s why they moved here, a few embraced it as ideology, but still remained here and fought hard to stay in the USA. That told me all I needed to know about a Euro model govt.

  12. The European model isn’t devoid of attractions but its basic problem is that it isn’t sustainable.

  13. As Margaret Thatcher stated “socialism is fine until you run out of other peoples money”. I would guess that is the definition of non sustainable.

  14. Thatcher was right but I think it is important to understand why a more statist idea is very attractive to people. It isn’t just that folk are lazy and want to live off other people’s money. Some are but a large part of it is the relatively unstable nature of the modern economy.

    There was a time when if you were prepared to work hard you would, more often than not, be able to support your family even if you weren’t a highly skilled worker.

    Both Democrats and Republicans are prone to sing the praises of job training but the fact is there is a portion of our population that will never be software programmers. Those people need to be able to support their families. Every economy is going to have people who are going to be low skill labor. People like that don’t really have much advocacy from either party right now. But a lot of the desire for a statist solution is driven by instability and the undermining of the ability of a hardworking man of limited skills to be able to provide for his family. That has to be addressed.

  15. Aaron- Define poverty in the United States…. a place where kids are so fat that we have to put bans on Happy Meals? Boy, those little ones in Africa would love to have that problem. Look, I’m not saying that there won’t always be a fraction of the population that needs a hand-up, I’m just saying that we’ve created a culture where we’ve made it pretty darn easy for folks to do nothing and get by. There was a day when people from the Range “would rather die” than take a dime from the government. Those days are long gone. Unless industry is allowed to thrive on the Range (which means environmentalists have to get out of the way and taxes need to be lowered), this area is going to become urban. It is attractive to low income earners who are on welfare because the cost of living and housing is so low. As the older people die off, if there aren’t jobs to bring young people up here, the only folks moving to the North Woods will be immigrants and low income. Crime will escalate (it already has) and the towns will quickly deteriorate.

  16. Wow, how this brilliant post especially made for demography buff nerds denigrated into a conservative/liberal bullshit argument is beyond me. All I have to input on that subject is look at the distribution of wealth and how it has occurred from the 1980’s to now. It is not so much a liberal/conservative issue as it is the uber-elite running the economic system no matter who is in office, liberal or conservative.

    The map was quite telling in fact that the Range is more stagnant than anything else. People are dying off, but there is no mass emigration. I think that many Rangers would be more than happy if less people left their suburban conclaves and came North. I was well introduced to meaning of the term “Cidiot”, when I lived on the Range. I was happy to have come from rural west-central MN so I didn’t have to argue, just nod and smile.

    I would still like to know where all the population growth and money around the Grand Rapids area is coming from, with the piss poor job situation in Itasca county. Perhaps much of the real estate upswing in the area is driven by second homes for Cidiots 😉

    At LSM’s last comment: I have to agree with your point when it comes to the Range I definitely noticed an influx of welfare abusers moving in from outside the area to abuse the system. This element created a large part of the crime in the area that I heard of. I can’t say that I agree with cutting off the safety net entirely, it is necessary for many good people at times in their lives, but people like these chronic abusers need to come to a point where they sink or swim.

  17. I think most folk think the demographics are driven by economics.

  18. I think economics have a large impact on demographics. That being said economics are only one criteria I would use when thinking of moving to an area personally. I will say this though, my time on the Range was economically miserable, but I still love the region and plan on returning at some point. One of the draws for me is the sparse population and solitude…

  19. Silkweasel, it sounds like if you had a job up here you’d stay. I think most people feel the same way. We only have minerals to offer, so lets mine them. I’m baffled by folks who fight mining and live up here. Go to Minneapolis and work at a “green” GE plant. Let those of us who feel the Range is special fight for the right to mine our natural resources.

  20. Yeah, I would’ve stayed. I think long term the Range really needs to diversify it’s employment base though. I agree with expanding mining, although I would be hesitant expanding certain types if the truth about sulfide mining is as bad as some say.

    It’s not only the lack of jobs on the Range, it’s also the quality of the jobs. It seemed like most employers really underpaid their workers to the point where I wonder how most people there survive…

  21. Mining is still main economic driver for Range cities, whether they like it or not. Take away mining, and they will fold up like lawn chairs in a high wind. Driving away the sulphide mines will just mean the demographics will continue as they are, stagnant or declining population. There will be an environmental price to pay, but it’s not nearly as big a problem as the outside groups (from my observations, very few of the mine opposers live in the Range) would like to think it is. Copper mines are much cleaner today, even though their environmental record in the past wasn’t good. They’re too closely watched today to get away with that stuff. You can be sure that any kind of mining operation going on today is being examined with a microscope by numerous private and public agencies/organizatons. And mining has historically paid better than most other industries on the Range.

  22. I live in CA, where the environmentalists essentially killed the mining industry in the past 20 years. Mining is no longer a significant player in CA’s economic picture. Which is ironic, because mining really made CA the economic powerhouse it was a few years ago. Look at it’s economy today — high unemployment rate, 25 billion in government debt, etc. Killing mining is not the only reason, but it’s a large part of it. MN seems to be headed in the same direction.

  23. OH,MY, here I went to post a thank you for this link, and an appreciative nod to the “hot nerd action” and look what’s in the Comments! Aaron, very thoughtful responses, better than I could muster!

  24. Been a constant theme with many of us on the Range. We need mining!!!! Please don’t remind me of our state looking like California, Fighting Cheyennes, that scares me to death.

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  26. Wow Sliky…you should avoid blogging after midnight, drinking or coming from a union rally..

  27. Wow….. I’ve been a Ranger for….. lets just say a long time and I’ve seen a few times Republicans have any influence on the Range. One was when President Reagan told US Steel they were NOT too big to fail in the early 80’s. I, like all Rangers back then, screamed like a scolded cat that Ole Ronnie was out of touch and the Range life was over. I was a die hard liberal then. To my amazement US Steel reorganized and the mining industry took off. Don’t kid yourself the Range has been in the clutches of the DFL for decades. The MN state House and Senate hasn’t been in Republican control since early 50’s, until 2010. That’s were the power is. Lets see what happens if the Republicans ever get control of all 3 branches at the same time as the Dems have had a few times. In all my years up here I haven’t seen the evil Right Wingers have much control at all.

  28. I don’t think party affiliation has much to do with it anymore. It’s an urban vs. rural thing now — the urbanites far outnumber the rural population, which means they dictate where and how the tax money is used, and they want the rural areas preserved for their recreation. Exploitation of natural resources is not something they care about, or want to see the impact of. Multiply that MN trend by 10, and you’ve got the CA situation today.
    By the way, I’m one of those ‘rural’ few left out here — there’s no question that the environmentalists and politicians would like us to move the heck out of here and conform to their way of life. We’re just an unnecessary tax funding drain as far as they are concerned.

  29. The Fighting Cheyennes, I agree completely, MN politics has denigrated into an urban vs. rural thing. I live 76 miles west of Minneapolis in a Republican stronghold district, both Senate and House. Our representative and senator, both conservative Republicans seem to always be caught in a dilemma. Their party wants them to vote in lock step with what Tony Sutton wants, but many times this ends up being very detrimental to the very areas they support.

    LGA is a prime example of this. It’s almost to the point where you wonder if it wouldn’t be better to vote for a third party with strictly rural interests in mind. Although, I must give credit where credit is due, Gov. Dayton seems to be doing more lessen the property tax burden on us “outstaters”, then has been in years.

  30. I come at from a jobs standpoint. My mother and father lived through the depression and instilled in their kids a strong work ethic. What bothers me in the urban/rural debate is why some “go green” tree huggers sitting on the Fed EPA board, who come from California, New York will decide if Rangers mine copper in Northern Minnesota. Minnesotans should decide that. We need work up here, after that good things will follow.

  31. Copper mining is never going to happen on the Range, take my word for it. The Sierra Club will litigate it for the next 20 years, and it will slowly fizzle. You’ll be lucky to have an iron mine left up there by that time. You may as well face the music and embrace the new future like Aaron says, because that’s the way it’s going to be. We may not like it, but we’re a minority, and that’s that.

  32. That is so depressing to hear, I hope that’s not the case. My grandparents came here from the “old country” as they liked to say. One set didn’t even speak english. From that family tree sprang many many college grads, miners, small business owners, teachers, and most moved on from here. There are a handful of us still on the Range. I fear if jobs leave what’s left of the families will leave also.

  33. I don’t think the numbers are particularly bad for either county.

    Remember, what the map shows is both out-migration and in-migration. You have to hover over the outlying county to see the numbers and the net income of those moving (I can’t find a summary total for the counties as a whole).

    And secondly, I think “stagnation,” as you describe it, if it is present, isn’t necessarily bad. In this country we have been brought up thinking that only constant growth is good. A stable population is bad only if it is inadequate to the needs of the community.

  34. Thanks for the great comment, Stan, and for your original post about the topic.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see those in/out migration numbers, though I didn’t talk about them very specifically. I couldn’t easily find the totals either, but for the purpose of this post I looked at the St. Louis and Itasca numbers for some of the big Twin Cities counties like Hennipen, Ramsey, Anoka and Dakota. Those were all pretty good. About even for St. Louis and to the plus for Itasca.

    The issue in our area is not the raw numbers, which are fairly steady. It’s the persons per household, which is an indicator of the kind of families you have. We are tilting more toward retirees, away from young families. Now, retirees spend money and pay taxes too. But they don’t sustain our schools, which are really struggling around here, and the whole operation has a chilling effect on the culture of some of these little towns. It’s not awful, and there are areas that could be improved with a little effort.

    You’re right, I don’t think doubling our population is possible or even our goal here. Some modest growth to replace what we lost in the ’80s and then a focus on what it takes to make life here better for those who are here.

    Thanks again!

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