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In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. State Republicans predicted economic harm if a vote to unionize Volkswagen's car plant in Chattanooga passed. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig) In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. State Republicans predicted economic harm if a vote to unionize Volkswagen's car plant in Chattanooga passed. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. State Republicans predicted economic harm if a vote to unionize Volkswagen's car plant in Chattanooga passed. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

By D.L. Davis August 10, 2021

Wisconsin’s working-age population drops while population in general grows

If Your Time is short

  • Wisconsin’s working-age population saw a net outmigration in much of the 1990s and 2000s. 

  • But looking at the general population, not just the working age population, paints a different picture.

  • The state grew by 9.6% in the 1990s, 6.0% in the 2000s, and 3.6% in the 2010s 

  • Wisconsin is growing, just at the slowest pace in the state's history.

There is a worker shortage in Wisconsin. Look no further than the proliferation of "help wanted," "we’re hiring" and "apply within" signs across the state. 

Joblessness from the pandemic fallout can be blamed for much of the problem; Republicans and allies have pointed toward enhanced federal unemployment benefits, which they say are keeping would-be workers on the sidelines.

In a June 27, 2021 appearance on WISN TV’s "UpFront," Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, pointed to another factor: Demographics.

"The demographics are such that we are not having replacement birth rates," Bauer said. "We have had more people leaving the state than coming in over the last 30 years."

It’s a particularly timely claim, with more census numbers rolling out in the coming days and months.

Is Bauer right that over the past 30 years more people have left Wisconsin than moved here?

‘Wisconsin has work to do’

When asked to provide back up for the claim, WMC spokesman Nick Novak said Bauer was making the point that "Wisconsin has work to do on attracting and retaining workers."

"If we are to keep growing our economy, we will need to reverse both recent and long-term trends of attracting more working-age people to Wisconsin, retaining our workers here and increasing birth rates to no longer be below replacement levels," Novak wrote in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin.

Novak referred to two reports: A 2019 Forward Analytics report "Falling Behind: Migration Changes & State Workforce" and to information from the University of Wisconsin- Madison’s Applied Population Lab.

 We’ll turn to both of them, and some additional sources, as we dig into the claim.

Bauer talked about the past 30 years, so that means the period from 1990 to 2020.

Changes in population are a dynamic thing, but are based on four fundamental factors: How many people are born, how many people die, how many people move in and how many people move out.

You can also measure different portions of the population, for instance breaking it down by age group. In this case, Bauer is mixing together multiple things, when he references both "replacement birth rates" and working-age people moving away.

The big picture is this: The state’s population in general is growing, while it’s working age population is falling.

According to the UW population lab, from 1990 to 2020, the state gained 362,899 people. That includes gains in each decade: 

1990s: 227,637 

2000s: 79,938 

2010s: 55,324

So, when looking only at the population in general, Bauer’s claim starts off on the wrong foot. It suggests we are losing population in some form.

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"The state grew by 9.6% in the 1990s, 6.0% in the 2000s, and 3.6% in the 2010s," said John Johnson, research fellow in the Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education at the Marquette University Law School.  "So the issue is a declining rate of growth. We are still growing, just at the slowest pace in the state's history."

That said, Bauer is focused on the working-age population, generally considered those between age 15 and 64. When you look at working-age population, the picture differs.

According to  Forward Analytics demographer Dale Knapp, in 1990, some 3,148,742 people fell into the working age category. In 2000, that figure had risen to 3,536,228.

In 2010 it had risen to 3,801,879, but by 2020, the number had dropped to 3,745,350.

In other words, the working age population saw increases in the two decades from 1990 to 2010, but a decrease from 2010 to 2020.

Migration patterns

But what happens when we look strictly at migration patterns? That is, people moving in and moving out. Remember, this was the underlying point of the claim -- that our workforce is suffering because not enough people of working age are moving here.

Knapp, director of research and analytics at Forward Analytics, which is affiliated with the Wisconsin Counties Association, examined age-group migration over five-year periods. He looked at the population of a cohort in one year, and then looked at the population of that same group when they were five years older. Knapp adjusted for deaths, and that gave him a net migration number. 

The approach has limitations.

"That means that I can't look at the 15-64 group in both years," Knapp explained. "That 15-64 year old group in the base year becomes 20-69 five years later."

In any case, here are five-year migration numbers for the 15-59 year old groups as they age to 20-64 over five years:  

1990-1995:  +91,850

1995-2000:  -8,345

2000-2005:  +16,392

2005-2010:  -29,237 

2010-2015:  -30,953

Knapp said he couldn’t provide the 2015-20 numbers yet because he doesn’t have deaths for those years. However, he said, "the ‘before deaths’ number for that period is -118,034 (that compares to a ‘before death’ number of -78,571 during 2010-15). That tells me that we likely had a large net outflow of working age people during those years."

So, generally speaking the pattern over the past 30 years has been losses, not gains. That’s in line with Bauer’s claim.

Our ruling

Bauer said "We are not having replacement birth rates. We have had more people leaving the state than coming in over the last 30 years."

There are a lot of ways to analyze the data, but here is the bottom line:

Overall state population has continued to grow, albeit by one of the slowest rates in history. The working-age population fell over the past 10 years -- not the past three decades, which is the timeframe Bauer offered. And when the impact of people moving in and out is isolated, the picture is one of ups and downs -- but more downs than ups, including in recent years.

For a statement that is partially accurate, our rating is Half True.

 

 

Our Sources

Email, Nick Novak, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, vice president of communications and marketing, July 12, 2021

Email, Dale Knapp, Director of Forward Analytics and director of research and analytics at the Wisconsin Counties Association, July 13, 2021.  


Email exchange, David Egan-Robertson, demographer, University of Wisconsin - Madison Applied Population Lab, July 15, 16, 2021

Email, John Johnson, Marquette University Law School research fellow, July 16, 2021 

WISN "UpFront" "Business leader calls on Evers to end enhanced federal unemployment benefit," June 27, 2021

U.S. Census Bureau "State Population Totals 2010-2020"

Forward Analytics

University of Wisconsin’s Applied Population Lab "Wisconsin's Interstate Migration Continues To Decline"

Wisconsin Department of Administration Demographics Services Center’s "Wisconsin’s Future Population Projections for the State, Its Counties and Municipalities, 2010 - 2040" 2013.

Forward Analytics "Falling Behind Migration Changes & State Workforce," 2019. 

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More by D.L. Davis

Wisconsin’s working-age population drops while population in general grows

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