Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution instructs Congress to carry out a census: “The actual Enumeration shall be made . . . every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such a Manner as they shall by Law direct.” The primary purpose of the census is the apportionment of representatives in the federal and state governments—i.e., the redistricting discussion currently underway in the Nebraska Legislature. However, the uses of census data have grown over time to include among other things the distribution of billions of federal dollars to state and local governments. Thus, the attention being paid to the 2020 Census data released in August.
The Census Bureau estimated Nebraska’s population in 2020 was 1.96 million people, an increase of 7.4 percent compared to 2010. The 2020 population estimates for counties are shown in Figure 1. More than two-thirds of Nebraska counties, 69 counties, saw a loss of population equaling 19,397 people. In contrast, 24 counties experienced population gains of 154,560 people. In net, Nebraska gained 135,163 people since the last census in 2010. According to the UNO Center for Public Affairs Research, the number of counties experiencing population gains last decade is similar to the number which saw gains between 2000-2010. Interestingly, it’s also similar to the number of counties which experienced gains during the 1950s and 1960s.
The census numbers also show Nebraska’s population continued to migrate east. Most of population growth during the past decade occurred in Nebraska’s three largest urban counties—Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy Counties. Combined, these counties grew by 136,381 people and now account for 56 percent of the of state’s population. The biggest population losses in percentage terms occurred in southwestern and Sandhills counties. McPherson County saw a decline of 26 percent, Dundy County a decline of 17.6 percent, and Rock County a decline of 17.3 percent (Figure 2).
The census data shows the declines in population and loss of working age populations in rural areas continue. The losses are making it increasingly difficult to attract businesses and sustain existing businesses due to worker shortages. A lack of labor can be overcome with capital (machinery or equipment) or greater productivity, but most people believe a growing population and increasing jobs are indicators of thriving communities. Labor shortages will be an ongoing concern and continued drag on economic growth in rural Nebraska unless the population trends can be reversed or stabilized.
Figure 1. Population by County, 2020
Figure 2. Percent Change in Population, 2010-2020