Declining north woods numbers a concern


IF YOU LIKE TO vacation in Wisconsin’s northwoods, the latest census estimates showing that 14 of Wisconsin’s 16 northernmost counties lost population the past three years can be seen as a positive.

After all, fewer people means more wide open spaces for hunting, fishing, boating, etc.

But those numbers are far less comforting to those living in northern Wisconsin. Fewer people in those communities means fewer jobs, smaller and maybe fewer schools and a less attractive future for young people contemplating where they want to spend their adult lives.

Northern Wisconsin is a beautiful place, and most of us wouldn’t want to see it overrun by rapidly growing population. But we should want it to grow enough to keep it viable so its permanent residents can make a decent living. That’s hard to sustain when more people die or move out than are born or move in.

Consider rural schools. According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, 83 percent of the state’s 220 rural school districts had enrollment declines from 2000-10. Nearly a quarter of them saw enrollments drop by more than 20 percent.

Another Taxpayers Alliance report found that from 2001-10, Wisconsin lost as much as $8 billion as a result of more people leaving the state than moving here.

The just-ended brutal winter may not make things better. The WTA study found that some of our losses are retirees with money leaving for warmer climes. While the average income of all Wisconsin movers from 2001-10 was about $48,000, the average of the 30,000 Wisconsinites moving to Florida was almost $82,000.

Dane County, home of our state government and the flagship university UW-Madison, saw its population grow by 4.3 percent from 2010-13, figures show. That’s by far the largest percentage growth of the 72 counties - Eau Claire and Trempealeau counties tied for second at 2.6 percent growth.

But how long can Madison go without feeling the effect of stagnant or declining population in much of the rest of the state, which means less tax money flowing to our capital city?

The unemployment numbers between now and November will touch off glee among Democrats if they rise, hoping such gloomy news will help them oust Republican Gov. Scott Walker and majority Republicans in the Legislature.

But this issue needs far more deliberation than the usual electionyear blather. Walker has made job growth the cornerstone of his governorship. If Democratic challenger Mary Burke hopes to win, she’ll have to not only explain where Walker has slipped up but convince us that she’d chart a better course.

It’s not an easy task. We can’t compete with Florida and Arizona weather. Technology makes it easier to milk cows and make most products with fewer people. The lure of big cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, etc., keeps calling our college graduates.

It’s not something anyone can solve in a 30-second ad, but it definitely deserves our attention. — Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, April 7

At issue:
Population decline up north
Bottom line:
Needs to be addressed

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