Iowa's Smaller Towns Got Smaller In 2016

Mar 23, 2017

While Iowa’s metropolitan communities continued to make population gains in 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau says the state's small towns got smaller. In just the last year Iowa’s micropolitans, communities with 10,000-50,000 people, shrunk in population by a net total of 0.4 percent.

The Spencer and Fort Madison-Keokuk communities saw the greatest declines in 2016.  Both lost one percent of their populations. Though since 2010, Clinton’s population has contracted the most -- by 3.7 percent.

Iowa State economist Dave Swenson says population declines in micropolitans is a trend seen throughout the western Midwest.

"They tend to be regional trade centers with significant concentrations in either farming or manufacturing, two sectors that aren’t growing," says Swenson. 

Small towns located east of the Mississippi River are doing better, says Swenson. Many of those communities are located near larger cities and enjoy some spillover benefits.  

The 2016 data isn't surprising. For decades, high numbers of Iowans younger than age-45 have been moving away from small towns.

"Other cities, other states and the metropolitan areas can outbid these smaller micropolitan areas for that labor," says Swenson. "That labor migrates to places where they have better economic opportunities and perhaps better lifetime employment and prospects."

A handful of Iowa micropolitans are bucking the trend of population loss. Most significantly, Spirit Lake grew by 0.7 percent in the last year, and 3.4 percent since 2010.