Iowa Ideas
Iowa Ideas

To provide a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience

designed to explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa.

Exploring Iowa's changing demographics

Changes in age, urbanization, race and ethnicity impact Iowa's future

Jun 20, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    The premise of Iowa Ideas – to connect Iowans to discover solutions and create a roadmap for the state’s future – would be impossible to do without understanding who we are and who we are becoming.

    Through Iowa Ideas, we hope to address how the changing face of Iowa affects any number of issues Iowans face. Changing demographics in the state affect health care, agriculture and education alike.

    Here’s a look at some of the major demographic trends that are affecting the state.

    Steady growth

    Beyond the corn and soybean crops spanning the state, Iowa has been growing. The year 2016 marked 29 consecutive years of population growth, according to the State Library of Iowa.

    “Are demographics going to affect the economy or is the economy going to affect demographics?...Talking about demographics without talking about the economy is an incomplete picture.”

    - Liesl Eathington

    Program Coordinator for Iowa Community Indicators Program


    The state’s population growth has grown 6.8 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by Gary Krob, the State Data Center coordinator. This percent increase is slightly less than the total U.S. population, which grew 10.7 percent, and all surrounding states besides Illinois, which grew only 3.5 percent.

    “Modest growth is a lot more sustainable,” Krob said, comparing it to the large growth that North Dakota is seeing due to the oil industry. He added that slow and steady growth is a lot less likely to be affected by outside forces.

    While population expands, the state also faces key trends influencing demographic changes. Liesl Eathington, program coordinator for Iowa Community Indicators Program, based at Iowa State University, said that the state’s demographics and economy are like the “chicken and the egg problem.”

    “Are demographics going to affect the economy or is the economy going to affect demographics?” Eathington said people often ask. “Talking about demographics without talking about the economy is an incomplete picture.”

    Race and ethnicity changes

    Iowa population by race and ethnicity: 2010 and 2050

    Sources: US Census Bureau 2010; Woods and Poole Economics Inc 2015

    While the total population of the state has only seen a 6.8 percent increase from 2000 to 2005, certain racial and ethnic groups in Iowa have seen much steeper increases. Since 2000, Iowa’s Hispanic, Asian and African-American populations have seen growth of 116.6 percent, 100.8 percent and 77.9 percent respectively, according to data Krob analyzed.

    International migration accounts for the largest amount of population growth in the state. From 2010 to 2015, approximately 7,000 people left the state while approximately 29,000 international immigrants entered the state. 

    In 2010, Iowa’s population was 91.3 percent white-non-Hispanic, which will decrease to 76.4 percent in 2050, according to projections from the State Data Center.  

    It’s too soon to tell how national policy related to immigration put into place by the Trump administration will affect migration to Iowa, Krob said. Should migration decline, Eathington said, it would have a negative impact on Iowa’s economy due to a shortage in labor already, adding that the agriculture and construction industries would especially feel the hit.

    Aging population


    Like many states, Iowa’s percentage of residents 65 years old or older is increasing as Baby Boomers age. This population accounted for about 15.8 percent of Iowa’s population in 2014, making it the 13th highest state for aging Americans. In 2030, this age group is projected to make up 21.4 percent of Iowa’s population, according to the State Data Center.

    Knowing the projections, the Iowa Department of Aging “focuses on empowering older adults to maintain their independence and advocates on behalf of older Iowans to ensure their rights, safety and overall well-being,” according to its website.

    This trend will affect the economy because as people age, they spend and consume less than when they are in the 40-to-50-year-old range and also tend to use more government services, Eathington said. And while the aging population affects the entire state, it affects certain areas more.

    “That population (65 and older) affects both rural and urban, but affects rural populations more,” Krob said.

    The reason for that, he explained, is because rural communities are also facing population decline. While Iowa’s population has steadily grown, “only a handful” of counties have seen that growth.

    Rural and urban divide

    Source: Woods and Poole Economics Inc 2015

    In 1980, only 15 counties had a population of less than 10,000 people – in 2015, there were 24 counties that fit that category.

    Many rural communities are facing natural population decline, or older members of their community dying, and this plays a role in what many refer to as “labor shortage” or the “skills gap,” Eathington said.

    Iowa is a great place for early career jobs, but when seeking a promotion employees often have to move to locations, such as Chicago, which employers see as larger economic hubs, Eathington said. In that sense, urbanization of Iowa’s larger cities, may attract employers to have mid-to-late-career jobs based here.

    “The more we urbanize is better for the state’s overall economy, but that’s a really difficult pill to swallow for smaller rural communities,” Eathington said.

    For rural communities to attract people, they may have to raise wages, but that’s not always a viable option, Eathington said, which is why many companies in those areas are being forced to move away. She encourages smaller communities to have realistic expectations, such as knowing that natural decline will happen and convincing young people not to move away “isn’t natural” because people are most mobile in the 18-to-30-year-old range.

    What’s the solution?

    While there might not be a single or simple solution, cities and states can proactively address these trends.

    For rural communities, that may mean trying to attract those in their 30s or 40s as they are starting to settle down, Eathington said.

    As immigrants make their way to Iowa, cities and towns should be proactive in helping integrate them into their communities, Eathington said. While businesses are motivated by profit to adjust the market to cultural differences, she said cities should look at everything from how they advertise public meetings to ordinances about how long your grass can be to help integrate new citizens to a different way of life.

    “How would this reach a new resident?” Eathington said community leaders should ask as they evaluate their regular practices.

    Eathington said we can’t look at demographic changes as a “train coming down the track,” but more of a system that we have the power to influence.

    If these topics interest you, be sure to attend our September conference to hear how changing demographics affect each of the tracks we are addressing.  

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