Iowa losing natives but still ranks high nationally for homegrown residents

People born in Iowa stick around at one of the highest rates in the country

Published: April 2 2014 | 9:30 pm - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:06 pm in

People born in Iowa stick around at one of the highest rates in the country, but native Iowans are also becoming a smaller and smaller part of the population here.

Just under 72 percent of the people living in Iowa were born here, according to 2012 data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

It's the lowest percentage of natives in more than 20 years.

"As Iowa continues to urbanize, the native born population will continue to go down," said Dave Swenson, an Iowa State University economist.

Since at least 1990, the proportion of people who stay has been declining.

The 1980 and 1990 decennial censuses reported about 78 percent of Iowans were born here. That number dropped to about 75 percent by the 2000 decennial census.

Still, the 72 percent native Iowans is quite high compared to the rest of the nation.

Iowa ranks sixth for homegrown residents among the 50 states behind Louisiana (79 percent), Michigan (77 percent), Ohio (75 percent), Pennsylvania (74 percent) and Mississippi (72 percent).

The rates in Linn (74 percent) and Polk (69 percent) Counties are near the state average. Swenson said this is likely due to a healthy number of job opportunities.

It may look like Iowans just love Iowa, but more likely it's an indicator of the challenges facing the state for drawing in people, said Liesl Eathington, an assistant scientist with the Iowa Community Indicators Program at Iowa State University.

"We have not been a real migration destination, such as New York or Chicago, partly because we are in the center of the country and partly because of our industrial patterns," she said.

Because Iowa struggles with attracting people to move here, the percentage of natives remain high. In rural counties away from population centers, where lower incomes limit mobility, the rates are greatest.

The explanation as to why this is happening can be seen in who is coming and going from the state.

Iowa has had slight net population growth of 15,377 people, according to the most recent one-year Census estimate.

Gains in urban centers due to higher birth rates than death rates and positive migration numbers outweigh population losses in smaller counties.

Iowa's 64 counties with fewer than 20,000 people have lost a net of 2,334 people, including 219 more deaths than births, according to the one-year Census estimate. Meanwhile, there's also a net loss of people moving away, except among the international population.

While domestic migration is a net loss of 2,220 people for these small counties, international migration is a net gain of 337 people.

As a state, which has positive migration numbers for international and domestic populations, international migration gain outnumbers domestic migration gain nearly 7-to-1 (4,143 to 671 people), according to the one-year Census estimate.

It's a marker of the increasing diversity in Iowa, said  Andrew Conrad, senior program manager at the Institute for Decision Making at University of Northern Iowa.

However, as the desire to live in urban areas picks up, the state as whole will struggle to keep people.

The most troubling part of out-migration in Iowa is 35-44 year old professionals who are leaving, with their families, for jobs and pay that match their skill set, Swenson said. Iowa trains people with skills for which there aren't comparable positions, he said.

"We are the farm team for the rest of the Midwest," Swenson said.

While Iowa can offer amenities, such as good schools, affordable housing and easy commutes, it doesn't outweigh the benefits of urban life.

"We have a natural experiment. Whatever bundle of amenities people value, it is connected to urbanization," he said.

Des Moines and its suburbs and potentially Cedar Rapids could benefit from the trend in the future, and Des Moines already appears to be.

Polk County saw a net domestic in-migration of 2,838 people, according to the one-year estimates for 2012. Linn County, which has overall population growth largely due to birth rates, saw a net domestic out-migration of 440 people.

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