Evans: State government may be harming Iowa population challenges

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I stumbled across a statistical tidbit the other day that probably will surprise many people.

U.S. Census Bureau figures show that between 1900 and 2000, the state that grew the least in population, on a percentage basis, was Iowa.

Read that again.

No state had smaller population growth between 1900 and 2000, as a percentage, than Iowa. Not North Dakota. Not Montana. Not Wyoming. Not any other state.

The census statistics show Iowa’s population increased 31 percent during that span of time. While that may seem like perfectly healthy, long-term growth, the next-closest state in the rankings was Nebraska. And its growth rate was nearly twice the size of Iowa’s.

The number of people living in Iowa rose from 2,231,853 in 1900 to 2,926,324 in 2000.

The states nearest to Iowa’s 31 percent growth are Nebraska (60 percent), Vermont (77 percent), Missouri (80 percent) and Kansas (83 percent).

The growth rates for other neighboring states were South Dakota (88 percent), Minnesota (181 percent), Wisconsin (159 percent) and Illinois (158 percent). 

At the other end of the rankings, the population increase in the fastest-growing state was breath-taking. That was in Nevada, which jumped from a sparse 42,335 people in 1900 to 1,998,257 in 2000. That is an increase of 4,620 percent.

The population trend in Iowa during the 20th century was not surprising, given the huge technology transformation that has occurred in our main economic endeavor, agriculture.

Iowa farmers moved from horse-drawn plows and harvesters to self-propelled tractors and combines. The mechanization allows farmers to do in a few hours what would have taken their ancestors days to accomplish — meaning fewer people are needed to work the land.

That advancement is continuing, bringing with it ongoing implications for Iowa’s population.

This month, for example, John Deere announced it will begin delivering fully autonomous tractors from its factory in Waterloo to its customers later this year. Instead of farmer/drivers sitting in the cab operating these machines, these new rigs will use cameras, computers and GPS technology to move through fields with no human hands on the steering wheel.

Yes, a good deal of the stagnation in Iowa’s population growth has occurred because of the inevitable changes in our rural economy. But it is time for Iowa to have a serious discussion of the population ramifications of some actions by Iowa lawmakers in the past few decades.

When Republican leaders talk about making our state more appealing for people and for businesses, they quickly point to tax cuts the Legislature enacted in recent years — and to even lower taxes they promise to approve this year.

Smaller tax bills certainly are popular. But the tax-cutters’ agenda misses something that is at least as important:

People’s decisions about where they will live go beyond the number of income tax brackets and whether the state tax system is flat or progressive. Our difficulty recruiting people to this state and the loss of many of our brightest young adults to other states — a phenomenon called the “brain drain” — is guided by factors the tax-cutters fail to grasp or choose not to address.

It does not help Iowa hang onto people, or make itself attractive to visitors, when rivers and lakes are left unsafe for recreation by agricultural pollution or when this contamination puts state beaches off-limits to summertime fun.

It does not help Iowa hang onto people when our top leaders make sinister accusations that educators and librarians are not motivated by what is in the best interests of Iowa’s children.

It does not help Iowa hang onto people or make itself attractive to visitors when one of the state’s true gems, our 83 state parks, suffer from deferred maintenance and routine daily upkeep that has been scaled back.

It does not help Iowa hang onto people if the government puts the interests of trucking companies ahead of the interests of families whose loved ones have been killed or maimed by negligent truckers. Our state government leaders trust Iowans to do the right thing during the pandemic, but these same leaders have no confidence Iowans will do the right thing when they sit on juries to decide lawsuits over such crashes.

It does not help Iowa’s population retention or recruitment when state appropriations for our 327 K-12 school districts, and for our community colleges and state universities, fail to keep up with inflation — or worse.

Reducing state revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars has an inevitable consequence. There is no magic wand that will allow lawmakers to avoid these consequences.

If lawmakers are going to make significant cuts on the revenue side of the budget, they will need to make offsetting reductions in appropriations — but these appropriations have been going for things that, taken together, make Iowa a more appealing place to live and work and visit.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.