Study Unveils Urban-Rural Split in Nebraska

Researchers at the University of Nebraska - Omaha have unveiled a study that shows the population pendulum swinging toward the state's metropolitan areas. Fewer people have pitched their family camps on the farm.

The findings were released Tuesday by UNO's Center for Public Affairs Research. It's a project that's shining some new light on census analysis and it highlights some big differences between Nebraska's urban and rural population centers.

According to the report, Nebraska's non-metropolitan areas are shrinking, becoming less diverse, aging and becoming less educated compared to their higher-population metro area counterparts.

Research coordinator David Drozd says there have been several dramatic trends in Nebraska’s demographics pertaining to who lives here and where in Nebraska you'll find them.

Here is the summary of the researchers' findings:

Of Nebraska’s 1.8 million residents, nearly two-thirds live in metro counties. These counties include those surrounding Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux City (Iowa) and Grand Island, which officially became a metro area in 2013.

Additionally, the number of residents in metropolitan counties like Douglas County and Sarpy County has been dramatically increasing since the 1930s while the number in non-metro counties has dropped significantly during the same timeframe.

According to Census data, there were around 500,000 residents in Nebraska’s current 13 metro counties in 1930 while that number more than doubled to over 1.1 million in 2010. Meanwhile, the number of residents in the remaining 80 non-metro counties was at its peak of nearly 900,000 in the 1930s and has declined to just over 670,000 today. For comparison, the same 80 counties had 10,000 more in 1890 than they do today.

Projections show that overall, the state of Nebraska is likely to add about 415,000 new residents by 2050, for a total of 2.24
million Nebraskans.

The ages of those living in metro and non-metro counties are also heading in dramatically opposite directions.

Based upon births, of those who were between the ages of five to 17 in 1963, 230,000 came from non-metro counties while only 190,000 were in metropolitan counties. In 2013, there are approximately 225,000 children between the ages of five to 17 in metro counties but only 110,000 in non-metro counties, a decrease of about 120,000, or slightly less than half of the number that existed 50 years ago.

As counties get more rural, the percentage of those under the age of 45 in those counties decreases. The numbers show while Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties have nearly two-thirds of their residents under the age of 45, the number is closer to half for counties without a town of 2,500 residents.

Additionally, even though Nebraska’s median age of 36.2 is only one year younger than the national median age, the figure drops to 33.6 in metro areas and jumps to 40.5 in non-metro areas, or a gap of nearly 7 years, which is twice the national average.

By 2050, Nebraska’s population, like much of the country, is expected to have a higher percentage of those 65 years or older. Projections show that while there are only 250,000 residents aged 65 or older in Nebraska currently, that number will likely jump to over 470,000 by 2050.

According to the projections, the older the age range the more significant the growth. While there is about a 10 percent overall increase between 2010 and 2050 for those under the age of 60, the number jumps by 73 percent for those 60 years and above, including a 163 percent increase for those above the age of 85.

Another finding in the data presented Tuesday was that while the percentage of White non-Hispanic residents is close overall between metro and non-metro counties (79 to 88 percent, respectively), the gap is more pronounced between the three most-populous metro counties (Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster), which are 77.6 percent White non-Hispanic, and the 51 most rural counties, which are 92.1 percent White non-Hispanic.

Among minority residents in Nebraska, Census data show that the metro/non-metro gap is significant for both African Americans and Hispanics, although the disparity isn’t as high for the Hispanic population.

The population of the big three counties is 7.8 percent African American and 9.0 percent Hispanic. The least populated counties have Hispanics accounting for 3.2 percent of their population, which, while small, is still significantly higher than the 0.4 percent of African Americans in the same area.

Overall, Nebraska actually had a 9.6 percent decrease in its White non-Hispanic under 18 population, with nearly all of that loss coming from non-metro counties, whereas there was an across-the-board 54 percent increase in the minority under 18 population for the state.

Comparatively, while Nebraska’s losses in the White non-Hispanic population were fairly consistent with the national rate of 9.8 percent, the increase for its minority population was more than double the national rate of 21.9 percent.

According to the projections, by 2030 there will not just be a decline in the proportion, but an actual population decrease of White non-Hispanics in Nebraska. Comparatively, the Hispanic population of Nebraska looks to add about 370,000 new residents by 2050. Additionally, the Black non-Hispanic population is expected to slowly increase by around 20,000 each decade and other non-Hispanic races are expected to do the same.

Overall, the White non-Hispanic population, which made up 94 percent of the state in 1980 is projected to decrease to 62 percent of the state by 2050 while the Hispanic population, which used to be under 5 percent in 1980, will increase to about one-fourth of Nebraska’s population by the mid-century mark.

The census data released on Tuesday also addressed the issue of education in Nebraska, highlighting a huge gap between metropolitan counties and non-metro counties.

While the number of those over the age of 25 with a high school diploma is fairly consistent at 91 percent for metropolitan counties and 89 percent for non-metro counties, the gap is significantly larger for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Compared to the higher high school graduation rates, just 34 percent of the population in metro counties have a bachelor’s degree or higher, whereas non-metro counties drop to 19 percent. Nebraska’s gap of 15 percentage points between metro and non-metro areas regarding college degrees is the highest in the 10 plains states.

With all of the projections released Tuesday, Drozd cautions that the numbers are based on past trends that may change over time depending on various events. The only true way to verify the numbers will be through data obtained in each of the upcoming 10-year Census collections.

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