Guest views: Demographics not working in state’s favor

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Monday, May 12, 2014

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance calls its new report on Wisconsin’s stagnant growth of working-age workers “the impending storm.”
The report paints a cloudy picture of our state’s future. It notes that Wisconsin’s working-age population is expected to decline 0.2 percent between 2010 and 2040, that only 21 of the state’s 72 counties are expected to see increases in residents ages 20 to 64, and only six will see increases of more than 10 percent. Northern Wisconsin is expected to take the hardest hit, with working-age populations expected to drop more than 10 percent in 13 northern counties in the next 26 years.
The report points out that all the job training programs and economic incentives Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Mary Burke stress in the months ahead won’t mean much if our working-age population continues to sputter.
“Wisconsin’s population is estimated to grow only 14.1 percent between 2010 and 2040,” the WTA report said. “To put that in perspective, the state’s population increased 14.5 percent between 1992 and 2010. In other words, what once took only 18 years will now take 30.”
The challenge is noted in our school enrollment, too. In 1997, it was about 860,000; last year, it was less than 855,000, the report said.
Why is this important? The WTA study found that between 1980 and 2011, states with robust growth in working-age population also had the best job gains. Nevada and Arizona are examples. The opposite also is true: States with stagnant or falling working-age population have the lowest job gains.
It should be noted that Nevada and Arizona have much warmer climates than Wisconsin’s. That may be the most frustrating factor—that a big driver of population shifts may be something we have no control over: our winters.
Also working against us is the decline of major industrial employers that built the cars, lawn mowers, tires and so many other products America consumed during the boom times of previous decades. With millions of those jobs moved offshore, the shift is to high-tech companies that can set up shop anywhere, and many of those company executives and workers apparently prefer warmer climates.
“Demography is destiny,” the report notes, so we need to develop a game plan to head off this expected downward spiral of job growth and opportunity, which if not addressed will only accelerate our state’s economic challenges.
Our education system, relatively low crime in much of the state, our beautiful lakes and forests, and room to stretch out are things that could be attractive to companies, if for no other reason than warmer places that grow too fast eventually will lack all of these amenities.
—The Leader-Telegram,
Eau Claire, Wisconsin

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