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Lloyd Omdahl, Published October 09 2011

Omdahl: Census will cost the west

We just about held a statewide “Populationfest” when the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the state had an increase of 31,000 residents – a 4.7 percent – in 2010 over the 2000 count.

While everyone was happy about the increase in the statewide total, the rural areas were chagrined to see the continued decline in small towns. Most of the cities under 5,000 lost population in the past decade.

In the 2000 census, North Dakota had 135 cities with 99 or fewer residents. In the 2010 census, 32 of them gained population, four tied 2000, but 99 lost. The 135 cities went from a total population of 6,720 down to 5,959 – a loss of 761, or 11.3 percent.

In the 100-199 population category, 10 cities gained, but 53 lost. In total, they dropped from 9,203 to 8,150, or 1,053, representing an 11.4 percent loss.

In the 200-299 group, eight cities gained, and 34 lost. They had 10,251 in 2000 and 9,377 in 2010 – a drop of 8.5 percent.

In the 300-399 group, 16 lost population, and three gained, for a decline of 8.7 percent in the group.

In the 400-499, all 11 cities lost population – dropping from 4,833 to 4,088 for a loss of 15.4 percent.

In the 500-999 group, 32 declined in population, and 15 gained, for a loss of 4.8 percent in the category.

For all 317 cities in the zero to 999 categories, 68 cities gained, four tied, and 245 declined, for an 8 percent loss in total population.

The categories of 1,000-1,499, 1,500-2,499 and 2,500-5,000 also showed losses, but in all three groupings, the losses were under 3 percent. It isn’t until we get to the 12 cities over 5,000 that we see gains. Even here, minor population losses were recorded for Devils Lake, Jamestown and Valley City.

In 2000, these 12 cities had a population of 330,360, and by 2010, they had grown to 374,130 – an addition of 43,770, or 13.2 percent. (It is apparent that this is where many of those small-town folks went.)

Unfortunately, the census was taken just as the population in the western Oil Patch started booming. Looking at the populations reported for western communities, it is obvious that the 2010 count did not capture the dramatic increases.

Many of the western cities (and counties) that lost population in the 2000-10 decade will be showing significant gains during the 2010-20 decade, but these increases will not be measured for another 10 years, meaning that booming western communities will be shortchanged for the whole decade.

State government shares its revenue with cities through three grant programs – highway distribution, cigarette tax and general state aid. Allocation of the revenue is based on the head count reported in the decennial census.

This means that all of those cities that were losing population through the 2000-10 continued to receive allocations based on the 2000 census. At the same time, cities that were gaining all through the decade were not receiving their fair share. These trends have always been happening, but at a more tolerable rate.

Ordinarily, conducting a new census would be more expensive than the benefits received. However, with the massive undercount in western cities (and counties), it seems appropriate to cost out the idea. The inequities involved may now be sufficiently significant to justify a state-sponsored mid-decade census, at least in western North Dakota.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com.