Nebraska Population Aging, Shifting East

It started nearly 50 years the 1960s. Young people began moving out of Nebraska's rural areas and into larger communities, and that's where they had their children. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the state's demographics began to change.

According to Jerry Deichert, Director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, the result is now evidenced by declining populations in rural Nebraska and growing populations in Lincoln and Omaha.

The Center for Public Affairs Research exists for three main reasons. First, it is the lead agency for the Nebraska State Data Center, which is a federal-state cooperative program with the U.S. Census Bureau set up to help disseminate information. Second, the Center helps interpret census data and makes it available. Third, the Center does survey research; every four years, it does an Omaha Condition Survey, gauging public opinion on topics of importance in the Omaha area.

Rural, Urban Population Shifts
In rural Nebraska, "what we are seeing is young adults leaving after high school. Some come back, but most don't and as a result, you have that aging population and fewer kids," Deichert said.

More than half the state's population is concentrated in just three metropolitan counties - Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster. "That doesn't mean that all small towns are declining, but in the aggregate, that's the case," he said. However, "there are many areas of strength that we see around the state, too."

The smaller the town, the less likely it is to grow in population, he said. Smaller towns may still exist, but their functions are changing. People may live in one town, but work in a larger community.

In the 1980s, Deichert said, Nebraska was really exporting people - more than 100,000 out of the total population of 1.6 million. However, the state actually added population because births exceeded deaths during that time. In the 90s, the state had a net in-migration because of people moving into the state.

"A lot of those people came from other countries; however, we were gaining people from other states, too," he said. In the 2000s, he sees that domestic out-migration to other states is going on again. "We're losing people to other states, but we're gaining folks from other countries," he said. "The net out-migration is about a thousand or 1,500 a year, but it's a shift from what we had in the 90s."

Deichert said people want to know how undocumented folks impact the state's economy, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine that figure. However, based on cost vs. benefit research conducted as part of an immigration study by Dr. Christopher Decker, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, it was determined that the native-born and foreign-born costs were about the same, Deichert said. That conclusion is based on an input-output economic model using information taken from the U.S. Census.

Omaha as an Economic Driver
Omaha is often thought to be a chief economic driver in the state, partly because of its large population relative to the rest of the state. Much of the activity in Omaha is associated with agricultural activity throughout the rest of the state, Deichert said.

"You have the Farm Credit Association; you have ConAgra; you have other kinds of food processing headquarters; there are packing plants still in Omaha; you have the financial sector that services that industry; you have manufacturing that services that industry; and you have transportation, with the railroad, that serves that industry, so it's not divorced from the agricultural sector," he said.

Income Differences, Poverty
Compared to the U.S. as a whole, people in Nebraska's metropolitan counties have incomes about 10 percent higher than the average, while the rest of the state is about 15 percent lower than the national average. "The more rural the county, the more likely it is to be below the national average," he said.

Even though Nebraska has a slightly lower poverty level than the nation as a whole, some of the more rural areas have higher poverty rates. In fact, Loup County had the absolute lowest per capita income of more than 3,000 counties in the United States, Deichert said. Another county with a high poverty rate is Thurston County, home to two Indian reservations.

Population Projections
Deichert said the Center for Public Affairs Research's population projections show that 10 years from now, the state's population will increase by four to six percent.

"We had the baby boom, then the kids of the baby boomers; now we have the grandkids of the baby boomers...and that ripple effect...that's going to slow down," he said. In-migration from other countries is also slowing down; births will slow down and Nebraska will start to see an increase in the older population. But in 15 or 20 years, there will really be an increase in the 65-and-older population, he said.

"You get the bulk of the baby boom moving through, replacing the small cohort that was born in the 30s," he said. The group born in the 30s will be replaced by the larger group born in the 40s and 50s, which will be the over-65 population in just a few years. The population under 18 years of age will increase slowly, he said.

The rapidly-increasing older population signals a fast-increasing need for health care, he said, and the people who are in the work force (people who will be 18-64 years old) will be depended upon more for their tax dollars to support the health care needs of the over-65 population.

"Something will have to change...types of services, people won't be able to retire at 65, people will have to work longer...all types of options," Deichert said. He cited farmers as an example of people who don't retire; "they may do things differently, but they're still working," he said.