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Population Changes in Northeast Minnesota

by Erik White
July 2018

Naturally Shrinking, Growing Internationally

Recently released estimates from the Census Bureau show that, overall, Northeast Minnesota has recorded a slight decline in population in recent years. Population estimates from 2017 show that the seven-county Arrowhead region lost just over 1,300 people since 2010, a 0.4 percent decrease, compared to a 5.1 percent increase statewide (see Table 1).

Table 1. Population Estimates for Northeast Minnesota, 2010-2017
2010 Census Population 2017 Population Estimate 2010-2017 Change
Numeric Percent
Northeast Minnesota 326,225 324,914 -1,311 -0.4%
Central Minnesota 684,001 709,007 25,006 3.7%
Northwest Minnesota 553,805 565,968 12,163 2.2%
Southeast Minnesota 494,684 507,073 12,389 2.5%
Southwest Minnesota 395,643 392,228 -3,415 -0.9%
Twin Cities Metro Area 2,849,567 3,077,416 227,849 8.0%
State of Minnesota 5,303,925 5,576,606 272,681 5.1%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates

However, a more detailed look at the components of population change shows how and why the Arrowhead is lagging behind the state in attracting and retaining residents. The two main components include natural increase, which is the number of deaths subtracted from the number of births in the region, and net migration, which is the comparison of people moving into the area versus people moving out.

Births and Deaths

On the positive side, there were nearly 23,500 births in Northeast Minnesota between 2010 and 2017. However, reflecting the region's older population, there were nearly 2,000 more deaths than births since 2010, leading to a negative rate of natural increase during that time period. Northeast Minnesota was the only region of the state not to have a positive natural increase so far this decade, whereas the Twin Cities and Central Minnesota were seeing rapid population growth (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Natural Increase Rate, 2010-2017

Despite being the second oldest in terms of median age at 52.3 years, Cook County was the only county in the region where there were more births than deaths. Not coincidentally, Cook County also saw the biggest population increase in the region from 2010 to 2017, although it was easily the smallest county in terms of total population.

In contrast, Aitkin County – which has the oldest median age in the entire state at 55.4 years – saw the biggest discrepancy between births and deaths, showing a natural decrease of nearly 700 people. St. Louis County accounted for about 14,700 births, which was nearly two-thirds of total births in the region. However, St. Louis County also had just over 15,000 deaths, leading to a small negative natural rate of increase (see Table 2).

Table 2. Cumulative Estimates of the Components of Population Change, 2010-2017
2017 Population Estimate 2010-2017 Population Change Vital Events Net Migration
Natural Increase Births Deaths Total International Domestic
Aitkin County 15,829 -373 -699 823 1,522 333 15 318
Carlton County 35,498 112 -20 2,660 2,680 158 35 123
Cook County 5,398 222 24 342 318 198 88 110
Itasca County 45,137 79 -350 3,393 3,743 474 12 462
Koochiching County 12,528 -783 -330 769 1,099 -452 64 -516
Lake County 10,524 -342 -236 776 1,012 -99 63 -162
St. Louis County 200,000 -226 -316 14,688 15,004 267 1,279 -1,012
Northeast Minnesota 324,914 -1,311 -1,927 23,451 25,378 879 1,556 -677
Minnesota 5,576,606 272,682 203,827 501,335 297,508 71,202 103,720 -32,518
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates

Net Migration

The other component of population change is net migration, which includes international and domestic migration. Overall, Northeast Minnesota had an increase of 879 residents since 2010 because of net in-migration – meaning more people moved in than moved out. While domestic migration led to a loss of 677 fewer residents, international migration resulted in an increase of 1,556 residents to the region. Minnesota had this same migration pattern, as there was a net gain of 103,720 international migrants, but the state lost 32,518 people who moved to other states in the U.S.

The individual counties of Northeast Minnesota have differing migration patterns. Koochiching and Lake were the only two counties to experience net out-migration, caused by significant domestic migration losses against only small numbers of international in-migration. St. Louis County also had considerable domestic out-migration, but welcomed an increase of 1,279 international immigrants which more than offset the domestic losses. In sum, more than 80 percent of international migrants in the Arrowhead region relocated to St. Louis County.

Although they relied less on international in-migration, Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, and Itasca County also enjoyed net domestic in-migration from 2010 to 2017. The estimates show that these four counties had more people move into the county from other places in the United States than people leaving for elsewhere, making them outliers in the region and some other parts of the state. This could indicate that the natural amenities in these counties are a strong draw for those moving from other parts of the state or nation, especially for those in the oldest age groups, including recent retirees who are looking for lake property or a more rural lifestyle.

Casting a Wider Net

International migration helped stabilized the population in Northeast Minnesota during this decade. Without it the region would have experienced greater population declines. While foreign born residents make up only about 2 percent of the total population in Northeast Minnesota – which is similar to Northwest Minnesota but less than all the other regions in the state – the number of immigrants has been increasing. Since 2010 it is estimated that the number of foreign born people in the Arrowhead region swelled by 11.4 percent, less than the state rate of 16.3 percent. However, it was still a gain of 674 new people, a notable increase in the face of population declines overall.

Northeast Minnesota's foreign born population is different from the rest of the state in several noticeable ways. First, based on year of entry, the region's immigrants appear to be much older. According to the Census Bureau data, about 40 percent of the region's immigrants entered the U.S. before 1990 and another 19 percent entered between 1990 and 1999, compared to just 22.4 and 24.5 percent statewide, respectively. The remaining 41 percent of immigrants in the region settled in the U.S. since 2000.

Second, because of proximity, Northeast Minnesota has a much higher concentration of immigrants from Canada than the rest of the state, and a much lower concentration of residents from Latin America. With more than 1,200 foreign born residents from Canada, about one in every five immigrants in the Arrowhead region came across the border from the north, compared to just one in every 36 immigrants statewide.

Third, Northeast Minnesota also has a much higher percentage of European-born immigrants, accounting for 28.4 percent of the foreign born population in the region compared to just 10.7 percent statewide. In contrast, less than 8 percent of immigrants in the Arrowhead are from Africa, which is about one-third the rate statewide. The largest foreign born population in the Arrowhead region is Asian and after gaining 231 settlers this decade, has just over 1,900 residents (see Table 3).

Table 3. Place of Birth for the Foreign Born Population
Northeast Minnesota Change from 2010-2016 Minnesota Change from 2010-2016
Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent
Total, Foreign-born Population 6,600 100.0% 674 11.4% 426,691 100.0% 16.3%
Americas: 2,213 33.5% 80 3.8% 122,660 28.7% 7.5%
Americas: - Northern America: 1,211 54.7% -113 -8.5% 11,961 9.8% -5.1%
Americas: - Latin America: 1,002 45.3% 193 23.9% 110,699 90.2% 9.1%
Asia 1,932 29.3% 231 3.6% 163,447 38.3% 20.1%
Europe 1,872 28.4% 113 6.4% 45,735 10.7% 1.6%
Africa 500 7.6% 198 65.6% 92,742 21.7% 32.1%
Oceania 83 1.3% 52 167.7% 2,107 0.5% 31.7%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012-2016 American Community Survey

For more information about the region's and state's foreign born population, check out "The Importance of Immigration" labor market reports accessible at: mn.gov/deed/data/lmi-reports/importance-immigration/

Population Projections

Based on population projections from the Minnesota State Demographic Center, the region's population is expected to fall slightly in the next 20 years, from 327,939 in 2020 to 320,328 in 2040, a 2.3 percent decrease. However, the region's older population, the number of people aged 65 years and older, is expected to increase by about 20,000 people in the next 10 years and make up nearly 30 percent of the population in the Arrowhead.

Meanwhile, the number of 5 to 14 and 15 to 24 year olds is projected to decrease by 9,344 people by 2030, an 11.9 percent drop. In addition, 25 to 64 year olds are projected to plunge by 13,712 persons, an 8.7 percent decline (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Northeast Minnesota Population Projections by Age Group, 2020-2040

This aging of the region's population has numerous effects on the regional economy, but none so important as the availability of labor for economic sustainability and growth. Because older people are less likely to work than those younger – reaching retirement age usually means exiting the labor force – an older and aging population typically reduces the number of workers available.

This definitely appears to be the case in Northeast Minnesota. Applying current labor force participation rates by age group to the region's population projections provides an estimate of this effect. In 2030 the labor force in the region would be projected to fall to 150,198 available workers, a 9,083 person decrease from 2020 or a 5.7 percent decline (see Table 4).

Table 4. Labor Force Projections, 2020-2030
Northeast Minnesota 2020 2030 2020-2030 Change
Labor Force Projection Labor Force Projection Numeric Percent
16 to 19 years 8,838 7,814 -1,024 -11.6%
20 to 24 years 19,520 18,639 -881 -4.5%
25 to 44 years 61,904 63,430 1,526 2.5%
45 to 54 years 29,005 28,004 -1,000 -3.4%
55 to 64 years 29,727 20,958 -8,768 -29.5%
65 to 74 years 8,972 9,331 360 4.0%
75 years & over 1,317 2,022 705 53.5%
Total Labor Force 159,281 150,198 -9,083 -5.7%
Source: calculated from Minnesota State Demographic Center population projections and 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

While the region has enjoyed economic stability and even slight job growth since the Great Recession, it is nearly impossible to expect that to continue without some considerable increases to the labor force participation rates of all age cohorts, an unforeseen increase to the regional population, some technological innovations that decrease the need for labor, or a combination of these and other factors.

An aging and shrinking population could have negative consequences on Northeast Minnesota's economy and stability going forward. Employers are already struggling to find applicants for vacancies in the tight labor market presently, reducing their ability to grow their businesses with increased employment.

But with challenges come opportunities, and the region will be home to many of these. Reducing barriers to employment for workers of all demographic characteristics, attracting and retaining new residents to the area, connecting area college students with local careers, and providing flexible work schedules to keep workers from retiring, among other ideas, would go a long way in ensuring future economic success in the region.

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