The Great Plains Since 1950

With 18 percent of the land but only three percent of the population, what's not to like about the Great Plains? A Census demographer reviews 57 years of population change in the Plains.

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The Great Plains run from Canada to Mexico, containing 18 percent of the nation’s landmass but only 3 percent of its people.

No wonder it’s so cool!

The U.S. Census Bureau has released a new report on the Great Plains, a study of the region’s population from 1950 to 2007 by demographer Steven Wilson. You can see the general borders of the Plains in the map to the right, boundaries devised in 1946. 

There are 376 counties in the Great Plains. (In 1950 there were only 375. Broomfield County, Colorado, was added in 2001.) Most counties (261) have fewer than 10,000 people. Only 34 have more than 50,000 residents.

Wilson’s paper is largely about population change. Yes, the Plains overall have continued to add people since 1950. But most of that growth is limited to two states. Colorado and Texas have only a third of the Great Plains counties but account for 96% of the region’s growth. Great Plains counties in four states have had total population declines since 1950. South Dakota was the only state where Great Plains counties accounted for an increased share of a state’s population.

We’ve pulled maps from the Census report. (The full report can be found here.) We’ve interspersed those maps with excerpts from Wilson’s report:

This shows the current population of Great Plains counties. Most counties have fewer than 10,000 people, in the light blue.

Wilson: Almost two-thirds (244 of 376) of the counties in the Great Plains lost population between 1950 and 2007. The total loss for those 244 counties was roughly 600,000 people. In addition, 69 Great Plains counties lost over 50 percent of their population. The largest decline occurred in Harding County, New Mexico, which lost 76 percent of its population between 1950 and 2007.

County-level population loss was the norm in the Great Plains portions of most states. Twenty of the 25 Great Plains counties in North Dakota lost population, as did 46 of the 58 Great Plains counties in Kansas. In addition, around half of the Great Plains counties in Colorado and Texas, the states that contributed the most to the region’s overall population gain, lost population.

The map at the top shows the percentage loss of population in Great Plains counties from 1950 to 2007. The bottom map shows the numeric change in population.

For most Great Plains counties, population loss started before 1950. For a majority of counties in and just outside the eastern border of the Great Plains, the census year of maximum population occurred before 1950 and in some cases, before 1900. Almost 60 percent (217 of 376) of Great Plains counties reached their maximum population before 1950, with most of those peaking between 1900 and 1920. The most frequent year of maximum population, for just under 25 percent of Great Plains counties, was 1930.

This map shows the year when each county had its largest population. The darker the blue, the longer ago the county reached its maximum.

In 2007, just over 68 percent of the Great Plains population resided in metro area counties. While this figure is lower than the 83 percent share for the United States, it is a higher percentage than in 1950, when 39 percent of the Great Plains population was metropolitan.

While the total natural increase in the Great Plains was similar in 1949–1950 and 2006–2007, growth in the natural increase in the Great Plains portions of Colorado and Texas was more than off set by a decline of over 27,000 in the natural increase in the Great Plains portions of the other eight states. Nebraska (–7,000), Kansas (–5,900), and North Dakota (–4,000) had the largest declines in natural increase. For North Dakota’s Great Plains counties, natural increase dropped from 4,800 in 1949–1950 to 800 in 2006–2007, a decline of 84 percent.

Examination of Great Plains counties by population size revealed strong patterns in the relative contributions of natural increase and net migration to overall population change. Among the smallest counties (those with fewer than 10,000 people), most (239 of 261) had negative net migration, and over 51 percent (133 of 261) had negative net migration and natural decrease. Of the 261 counties, only 9 had both natural increase and positive net migration.

Of the 81 midsized counties (those with 10,000 to 49,999 people), most (59 of 81) had negative net migration and 7 had both natural decrease and negative net migration. Of the 81 counties, 18 had both natural increase and positive net migration. All 34 Great Plains counties with populations of 50,000 or more had natural increase, and 23 of the 34 had positive net migration.

The age structure of the U.S. population changed between 1950 and 2007, with the median age climbing from 30.2 years to 36.6 years, an increase of more than 6 years. The median age in the Great Plains increased in a similar manner, from 28.5 years in 1950 to 34.9 years in 2007.

This map compares the median age of each county’s population in 1950 (top map) and 2007 (bottom map). The lighter the purple, the younger the median population.

In 1950, the median age in most U.S. counties was under 30 years. By 2007, the median age of the population in most U.S. counties was 35 years or more. In 1950, almost three-quarters of Great Plains counties had a median age below that of the U.S. median age of 30.2 years. In 2007, in comparison, just over 20 percent of Great Plains counties had median ages below the U.S. median age of 36.6 years, a decline of over 50 percentage points since 1950. Furthermore, in 1950, no Great Plains county had a median age above 37.1 years. By 2007, almost 55 percent of Great Plains counties had a median age of at least 40 years. Of these counties, over 80 percent are located outside (cities). One Great Plains county, Sheridan County, North Dakota, had the highest median age in the United States in 2007 at 54.5 years.

 

 

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