Wyoming has always been a small population state. From the first census following its admission to the Union, Wyoming has never ranked higher than third-lowest population, and except for one census, has always been either the smallest or second smallest. The census figures that were released this week confirm that Wyoming is still the state with the smallest population, to none of our surprise and much local pride.
However, the census also shed light on a troubling trend. Not only is Wyoming the smallest, we are also one of the bottom states for population growth rate, ranking 44 out of 50. The states with lower growth rates than Wyoming were Illinois, West Virginia and Mississippi, which actually lost population, and Connecticut, Michigan and Ohio.
Over the past 10 years, Wyoming’s cumulative population growth has only been 2.3%. The nationwide growth rate was 7.4%, which was the lowest in decades. All our neighboring states have much higher growth rates than Wyoming, ranging from Nebraska, with a growth rate more than three times higher than Wyoming’s, to Utah, which had a growth rate eight times higher than ours. In fact, through the western continental United States, only New Mexico had a growth rate similar to Wyoming, and New Mexico’s was still over 20% higher than ours. Other than those two states, the next lowest rate in the Rocky Mountain west was Montana, with a growth rate over four times higher than Wyoming.
To put it all together, the United States is growing, and especially the West, but Wyoming is not. Even though we love our small population, that is a real problem.
Wyoming’s growth rate is even more concerning because we have a negative migration rate. That means people are moving out of Wyoming faster than they are moving in. All of Wyoming’s growth has been because our birth rate is higher than our death rate. Even with that, we lose about half of our population growth to people moving out of state. If Wyoming had no net migration – no one moved in and no one moved out – our population growth rate would rise to about 4.2%. That is still low, but would rank us around 32nd out of 50, rather than 44th. So not only is Wyoming not growing, it is instead fueling the growth of other states.
This a cause for concern for several reasons. On one hand, we need population growth to fuel economic growth. We cannot establish new business and fuel new opportunities if we lack the people to do the work. At the same time, low population growth is often a symptom of problems as much as a cause. As we see more people leaving Wyoming than coming in, it indicates to us that there is something missing from our communities that allows people to stay.
I believe a significant part of the reason that people are leaving Wyoming is the lack of economic opportunity outside of our core industries. As it currently stands, changes in economic factors in our legacy industries have an oversized impact on our state economy – and, by extension, population – because when those jobs change or are eliminated, there simply isn’t anywhere else for those workers to go without moving out of state. More diverse economic opportunities would help soften the blow of economic market changes and, hopefully, allow more Wyomingites to stay and contribute to our state’s growth.
How do we encourage the economic growth and diversification that would help stem the tide of our population leaving Wyoming? At it most basic level, we should start with ourselves. Many of us in Wyoming have an attitude that we do not want growth. We do not want change or to see our communities expand. This is counterproductive, and it is an attitude we need to set aside. We do not get to choose whether change occurs, but we can decide how we deal with it.
All around the state, there are communities that are hurting or declining because of changes outside their control. If we can diversify our economy and seize some of the new opportunities in front of us, there may be a chance to reverse some of that decline. We must support new businesses and welcome those from outside who choose to make Wyoming their home. We should also be proactive on supporting infrastructure that makes Wyoming business and family friendly.
Even if we can accomplish all of this, no one thing is going to change Wyoming overnight. However, by doing lots of the little things to help Wyoming prepare for the future, we can help ensure that the Wyoming of the future is an even better one than we live in today.