Saturday, March 26, 2016

Dane County grows while rest of Wisconsin stagnates in Age of Fitzwalkerstan

I would like to thank the Wisconsin State Journal for alerting me to the fact that the U.S. Census Bureau released its 2015 figures for county and metro populations this week. The State Journal noted that the Madison area stood out as one of the few places in the state that added a sizable amount of people last year.
Dane County had the highest rate of population growth of any county in Wisconsin in the last year, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday.

The county’s population rose 1.3 percent between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015, the bureau said.....

Dane County gained 6,714 people over the period, more new residents than any other county in the state. That increase was 514 higher than between 2013 and 2014.

Wisconsin as a whole had a 1.5 percent population growth rate from 2010 to 2015 and gained 84,048 new residents in that time. But from 2014 to 2015, the state had a 0.2 percent growth with a gain of 11,905 people, according to the bureau’s website.
So I went inside those Census numbers a bit further, and wanted to take a look at how population has changed in Wisconsin over recent years. And what I found was quite surprising, and a story that isn’t being told very much, but gives some real insight onto the changes and damage done to this state in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan.

I first jumped off of WSJ writer Amanda Finn’s point about Dane County having the highest population growth in the state, and noted that its growth rate has stayed consistently high throughout the 2010s. This is in significant contrast to the state’s declining rate of growth over the last 5 years, with last year having the smallest increase yet – barely over 0.2%, and not much more than half as much as we grew in the last year of Jim Doyle’s tenure.

Bad enough, as declining growth in population usually limits the ability of a place to grow (obvious, but still important to mention). But even more alarming is how concentrated the tepid growth in Wisconsin is, with a majority of the state not being in on it. I’ll start out by mentioning that Dane County’s growth last year was more than the combined growth in the other 71 counties in the state.

Wisconsin population, 2014-2015
1.Dane County +6,714
2.Rest of state +5,191

To go further, if you take out the six counties in Wisconsin that added the most people last year, the population of the state went down.

6 biggest gainers, Wisconsin population, 2014-2015
1.Dane County +6,714
2.Brown County +2,130
3.Outagamie Co. +1,266
4.Waukesha Co. +1,153
5.St. Croix County +613
6.Eau Claire Co. +428

A similar pattern repeats when you go back to 2011, which takes into account the Age of Fitzwalkerstan from the date that Scott Walker’s first budget took effect in July 2011. Not only has Wisconsin population growth been small, but it has almost all been in and around the state’s metropolitan areas. And Dane County again leads the way.

6 biggest gainers, Wisconsin population, 2011-2015
1. Dane County +27,143
2. Brown County +8,155
3. Milwaukee Co. +6,038
4. Waukesha Co. +5,680
5. Outagamie Co. +5,469
6. La Crosse Co. +2,936

Hmmm, maybe our state’s elected officials should be looking to figure out why people flock to Dane County and then try to copy it for the rest of the state. NAH, who am I kidding? That’s just silly talk.

So where has this exodus of people (and their lack of replacement) been happening in the state? Generally in northern and eastern parts of the state, but they are far from the only areas that have suffered population losses. Half of Wisconsin’s counties lost population last year, and 37 of the state’s 72 counties had less people in them in 2015 than they did in 2011.

And having so many Wisconsin population is a recent phenomenom, as a look at past figures shows that only 17 of Wisconsin’s counties lost population between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, and the state’s population averaged growth of over 0.5% a year- twice what it grew last year. So if someone tries to argue that the population drought in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan is merely the continuation of a long-term trend, it’s not true.

The top population loser in the state last year may surprise you (it did me, anyway), and it should be sending serious warning signals.

6 biggest population losses, Wisconsin population 2014-2015
1.Walworth Co. -695
2.Manitowoc Co. -355
3.Marinette Co. -342
4.Shawano Co. -248
5.Ashland Co. -233
6.Rusk County -231

That’s right, Walworth County, home of Lake Geneva. An area you’d think would be filling up with people that lots of people who work in northern Illinois would live in if things were so much better here in Wisconsin, or where businesses would be setting up if they truly used tax climate and tax cuts as a top reason for location. The fact that the opposite is happening, and that Walworth County is losing population after gaining more than 10,000 people in the 2010s, should tell you something is going wrong.

If you expand out into the last 4 years, a couple of these names stay on the list with others come into play. But all are outside of major urban areas, and all 6 voted for Scott Walker in 2010, 2012 and 2014 (most of them by wide margins).

6 biggest population losses, Wisconsin population 2014-2015
1.Manitowoc Co.-1,360
2.Wood County -1,212
3.Adams County -756
4.Langlade Co. -663
5.Waushara Co. -548
6.Marinette Co. -547

There’s a Steven Avery joke in there with Manitowoc County losing the most people, but I won’t make it.

These population stats make me of two minds when I see it reflected in our state’s goofy politics. I suppose I could be heartened by the fact that the thinking, blue-voting area of Dane County is becoming more influential statewide as its population grows, and that the rural, aging areas that support Scott Walker and other Republicans are dying out. But that long-range view was the mentality of Mike Tate and the DNC types who decided it wasn’t worth fighting too hard or smart against the many power grabs and radical changes that the Fitzwalkerstanis put in from 2011-2014. All of us in the state have lost big as a result of that (well, everyone outside of WisGOP’s inner cabal), and just because Dems are demographically positioned to be dominant in 10 years, it doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t a state worth saving by that point.

I generally lean toward an alternate view of what those population shifts mean. The declining areas seem to have mostly reddened, and seem especially susceptible to the scapegoating of Trumpism. As Craig Gilbert of the Journal-Sentinel noted, Trump polls best among Repubicans in the northern half of Wisconsin, and in blue-collar areas like Manitowoc.

The 2010s have left these people behind and they see decline all around them, despite the fact that they worked hard and played by the rules. Now they want someone to blame, and the “others” are a great target- be they public employees, hoidy-toidy book-learners, immigrants, other people of color. This is why they liked seeing Scott Walker stick it to those teachers and unionists (well, until their schools went to shit), and why they think the clueless, reckless Trump can “Make America Great Again.”

On the flip side, the few growing areas of the state likely mean the blue-voting areas of Milwaukee and Madison grow even more in influence, as will the dead-red suburbs in the 262. The growth in the Appleton and Green Bay areas in Northeastern Wisconsin makes for the biggest possibility of realignment. These areas have been close to 50-50 in presidential years, but have been more like 60-40 Republicans in off-year elections. If the results in elections start to slide to Dems, then it’s likely Dems will be dominant statewide very soon. But if the GOP stays strong and starts picking up 60-40 level votes in presidential years, then the Republicans become a strong force in every election (not just off-year ones), and perhaps the influence in issues shifts as well. The 920 is not the 262, even though their reps vote in lockstep for the time being, and perhaps some member of NE Wisconsin will actually assume a strong voice of power in the Wisconsin GOP (which is dominated by SE Wisconsin these days).

So the Census Bureau figures for Wisconsin’s county population are intriguing, and I recommend you dig into it to see how things are trending in your neck of the woods. It’s also worth seeing if these changes are mentioned as the nation’s eyes turn to Dairyland with the presidential primaries and Supreme Court race on April 5, because it might explain a lot of what we see flash across our TV and computer screens that night.


  1. But, if UW was the engine driving economic growth and attracting population to Dane Co, and you decimate UW...

    1. Yeah, doesn't seem like a winning strategy, is it? But when has the Walker folks ever cared about a sensible jobs strategy? Its all politics and tactics, economic results dont matter

  2. If Dane Co. grew because of economic growth owed to UW and you savage UW...

  3. The goal has always been a dumbed-down workforce for minimum-wage jobs, which are pretty much all WI has to offer anymore. You don't need a bunch of smartass kids getting degrees in anthropology (or the sciences, for that matter--think "DNR").