This week, we’re reporting on population data from the 2020 census for a number of communities in our area and the results are alarming. Every one of the cities that we cover, including Tower, Ely, Babbitt, Cook, and Orr, lost population, in some cases by significant amounts, according to the data now available from the Census Bureau.
Tower’s population declined by 14 percent, from 500 back in 2010 to just 430 as of the 2020 count. Orr saw a 25-percent decline, from 280 to just 211.
Cook and Ely saw smaller declines, with Cook dropping seven percent, from a population of 574 ten years ago, to 534 today, while Ely saw a 5.5-percent decline, from 3,460 to 3,268. Babbitt lost 78 residents, a 5.6-percent decline.
The Mesabi Range towns weren’t immune, either. Eveleth lost 225 residents, or 6.4 percent, while Virginia lost 291 residents, a 3.5-percent decline.
If these numbers are accurate, they help to explain the continuing decline in school enrollments in our region as well as the chronic worker shortage faced by many businesses in our area.
There are, however, reasons to question the numbers in some cases. The latest census data not only points to a declining population in Tower, for example, they also indicate an astonishing number of vacant residences— a total of 79. Where those residences are to be found is anyone’s guess. While there certainly are a number of vacant or seasonal residences in the community, no one seems able to identify how the census determined that more than a quarter of the city’s housing stock is currently vacant at a time when demand for housing in the community is seemingly high. Housing is a key element in growing a community. If more than a quarter of the available stock in Tower is really sitting idle, it is a major impediment to reversing this troubling population decline. Determining how to fill vacant houses in our communities should be a major initiative.
We suspect part of the problem in communities across our region is a growing disinterest in participating in the census. Anti-government attitudes have been on the rise with many Americans, including many in this region. Some have complained that the census is an example of unwanted government intrusiveness. Yet, the decennial census was something that our nation’s founders specifically mandated in the U.S. Constitution. It’s as American as apple pie.
In fact, a census is critical to maintaining representative government. The population numbers established by the census determine our representation in both Congress and the state Legislature and if our population declines, our clout in Washington and St. Paul declines with it. As a state, Minnesota’s population grew by about 400,000, or 7.6 percent over the past decade even as communities in our region, and other rural parts of Minnesota, lost ground. That will mean more representation, and more clout, for the Twin Cities metro region as a result of the upcoming redistricting. It’s going to be tougher to make the case for addressing critical needs of rural Minnesota as more and more lawmakers represent suburban districts.
And, since many types of government funding are also based on population, the population declines highlighted in the latest census data mean our region will see less funding under such programs in the future. Residents of our communities should have considered that before they tossed their census forms in the trash.
If the latest census data is a true reflection of the population trends in our region, our community leaders should be asking what can be done to reverse the trend. At the current rate of decline, Tower’s population would be just 369 nine years from now, when the 2030 census is completed. Orr’s population would be just 174 and Cook would dip below 500 for the first time in more than a century.
It’s worth noting that there were some population bright spots in our area. Lake communities, like Greenwood, Crane Lake, Fall Lake, and Beatty townships all gained population over the past decade as people recognized the quality of life such areas offer. Fall Lake saw its population grow by 12.9 percent. As we expand broadband into these areas, it’s likely to encourage more in-migration, something this area desperately needs.