The demographics of Nebraska are changing: The population is aging. It's growing in diversity. And the majority is now urban dwellers.
At least 1.1 million of Nebraska’s 1.9 million residents live in five counties: Lancaster, Douglas, Sarpy, Hall and Dakota.
“That’s a real concentration of population,” Josie Schafer, director of public affairs research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told state senators and senators-elect gathered for a November meeting. “This has been an overwhelming trend for a really long time and you can expect it certainly to continue.”
To take it a step farther, 1.2 million residents live in 12 metro counties.
Since 1900, Nebraskans have switched from being rural dwellers to 65 percent urban dwellers.
That switch occurred in 1970, and urban areas will continue to increase while rural areas will continue to lose population, according to information from the U.S. Census Bureau and population projections by the Center for Public Affairs Research at the UNO.
Fifty of Nebraska’s 93 counties are 100 percent rural, and for the most part, they are losing population. But those people are mostly moving within the state. Rural counties with some urban areas are gaining population.
But 69 of 93 counties are losing population, and 60 counties have more deaths than births.
Why does this all matter? Nebraska is one of the top agricultural producers in the country, bringing in $21.5 billion in 2016. Farms and ranches use 91 percent of the state’s total land area, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
Some agricultural leaders believe the loss of rural population can create a loss of political relevance in Nebraska and national politics.
Nebraska loses 2,000 people a year to other states, a relatively small number, according to Schafer. They are going mostly to Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado. Fewer are going to South Carolina, Washington, North Carolina and Florida.
Most of the people leaving have bachelor’s degrees, Schafer said.
The loss is offset by natural gains, such as in births, and the approximately 4,000 people who come to Nebraska from international locations each year.
The minority population in the state is also growing, from 8 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2017. The Latino population alone is at 11 percent, more than other minorities in Nebraska combined, including African-Americans, Asians, Natives and people of two or more races.
“Soon, our institutions of higher education will look different,” Schafer told senators. “This change in diversity will continue throughout their lifetime and we will see our schools, our institutions of higher education and eventually our workforce look very different than they do today.”
Nebraska is also experiencing the beginning of what will be many more retirements of baby boomers, Schafer said.
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An aging population can be a great asset, but it will create new issues in income and new needs for services in the state, she said.
In the next three decades, the ratio of working-age adults to aging adults is expected to drop from 5:1 in Nebraska, to 3:1.
Now, about 1.1 million Nebraskans are working, 700,000 full-time.
At the same time, the percentage of children under 5 is expected to remain flat because people are not having as many children, Schafer said. But a state needs population growth to have economic growth, she said.
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg asked senators how the state is going to provide the needed services in the rural areas when they don’t have enough young people to do that.
There is a belief, Williams said, that the state has an obligation to provide those services or it will hasten rural depopulation.
Nebraska continues to gain population but that gain is small, Schafer said.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, who will leave office in January, has chaired the Legislature’s long-range planning committee for the past couple of years. The committee has been collecting data, with the help of the UNO public affairs research office since 2009.
One of Schumacher’s major concerns has been the state’s lower-than-expected tax collections over the past several years, and the drawing down of its rainy day fund, mostly for projects and one-time expenditures.
"If you don't have money, you aren't going to be able to do much," Schumacher told senators. "And it's really hard to tell how much money you're going to have year-to-year, whether the economy's going to go up or down, whether or not the demographic trends you'll see are going to cost you money or whether or not they're going to bring in money."
Unless you have a reserve, someplace to go to for money if things don't look good as planned, "you're really going to be in tough shape," he said.
In the past three to four years, the state's rainy day fund has been cut in half, even through there wasn't a great economic crisis.
The rainy day fund is at $332 million, or 7.6 percent of general fund expenditures. If needed, the state could last only 27 days with that amount of money. Compared with other states, the rainy day fund is around the median, but Nebraska has much stricter constitutional limits on debt that make that level of funds a concern to the planning commission, Schafer said.
The Legislature will have to wrestle with the questions sometime on if or how to care for those older Nebraskans who have not been able to save enough money to care for themselves. Where is that resource going to come from?
“You’re about governance. And what is governance?" Schumacher asked rhetorically. "Governance is bringing into being a future defined by the collective will. And that’s the tough job of being the Legislature. What collective will do we want?”