Wisconsin has regained almost all the population it lost since 2020, despite the fact that deaths are outnumbering births in the state.
But even as more people move to Wisconsin, the state's post-pandemic population gains have been uneven. Milwaukee County continues to shrink, while the Madison area in Dane County is surging. And several rural counties in northern Wisconsin are seeing relatively high population growth rates, recently released estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show.
Transplants account for statewide growth, as more Wisconsinites die than are born
Between the official U.S. Census count on April 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, Wisconsin lost 13,624 people, a drop of about 0.23 percent.
But, by July 1, 2022, Wisconsin had regained most of that loss, according to the updated census estimates. The state had nearly 5.9 million residents in 2022, which was only 1,186 fewer people than were tallied just after the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
New people relocating to Wisconsin — whether from overseas or from other states — accounted for much of the population rebound between 2021 and 2022, said John Johnson, a research fellow at the Marquette Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education.
That's because deaths have been exceeding births in Wisconsin every year since 2020.
"Even last year, which was an improvement for the state, we still had more deaths than births," Johnson said. "Migration is going to be the driver of population change, growth or decline, going forward."
In 2022, 63,397 Wisconsinites died — 1,758 more than were born. By comparison, more than 7,657 people moved to Wisconsin from elsewhere in the U.S., and an estimated 8,174 people immigrated to the state from other countries, according the Census Bureau totals.
The phenomenon of deaths exceeding births has been decades in the making, Johnson said. Demographers point to factors like the aging of baby boomers, as well as trends seen in other developed nations where people are more likely to give birth later and to have fewer children overall compared to previous generations.
"The pandemic accelerated that trend (of deaths outpacing births)," Johnson said. "The switch from slightly more births than deaths to slightly more deaths than births occurred sooner than we expected, but I think most demographers expected that switch to happen later in this decade."
In 2020, deaths exceeded births in half of all U.S. states, which was a record high number of states, according to an analysis from the University of New Hampshire. Those trends continued into 2021 (when deaths outpaced births in 26 states) and in 2022 (when there were more deaths than births in 24 states), according to a UNH analysis.
Deaths from COVID-19 itself played a role — an estimated 16,498 Wisconsinsites have died from the disease since 2020. Experts also point to the likelihood of excess deaths, meaning people who died as an indirect result of the pandemic. That could include people whose access to health care was delayed, or those who died of drug overdoses or suicide amid social isolation.
And, on the other end of the life cycle, the pandemic may have motivated parents to delay having children because of worries about finances, health risks or being cut off from social supports.
Population rebounds were uneven, as Milwaukee County kept plummeting
Although Wisconsin has as a whole has attracted enough transplants in the last year to nearly make up for its post-2020 population drop, rebound patterns vary widely across the state.
Those divides could have lasting economic implications, as workforces grow or shrink. Population also translates to political power, since census counts are used to calculate representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and to help determine the boundaries of state and local political districts.
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Although Milwaukee County remains the state's most populous county overall, it's also lost the most residents in recent years.
The county's population dropped by 20,834 people between April 1, 2020 and July 1, 2022, a decline of more than 2 percent.
In a statement, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said the county's strategic plan aims to retain residents, in part by focusing on people who have been historically underserved.
"Milwaukee County remains at the top of some of the worst lists when it comes to race and health equity, and we’ve been at the top for the better part of the decade — this hurts everyone," Crowley said. "If we’re concerned about the exodus from the County then we must make the investments to make our region a place people want to stay, settle down, and contribute to the community around them."
Rates of homeownership, poverty and infant mortality vary widely between white, Black and Latino Milwaukee County residents, according to figures gathered by the county as part of its racial equity public health plan. The city of Milwaukee also routinely ranks as among the country's most racially segregated.
The county's post-pandemic population loss is a continuation of a long-term trend. Between the 2020 and 2010 Census, Milwaukee County lost more than 8,200 residents, close to a 0.9 percent drop.
The 2020 figure could shift somewhat, however, if an effort by Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson is successful. Johnson is challenging that city's official 2020 Census count, arguing the Bureau undercounted the city's residents by about 16,500 people, leading to millions of dollars in forgone federal funding.
Post-pandemic figures show Dane County growth continues
At the other end of the spectrum was Dane County, which has seen continued population gains since 2020.
Dane County added 6,696 people since 2020, the largest number of new residents for any Wisconsin county, the new Census Bureau data shows, representing a growth rate just over 1 percent.
Madison, Dane County's largest city, is home to Wisconsin's state capital and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The county's largest employers include the health care records company Epic Systems and the insurance companies American Family Insurance and CUNA Mutual, according to the Madison Region Economic Partnership. It's also home to the scientific research companies PPD and Exact Sciences.
Between 2010 and 2020, Dane County's population grew 15 percent to more than 561,500 people, according to the U.S. Census.
Although Dane County gained the largest number of residents, several northern Wisconsin counties actually saw the highest post-2020 growth rates as a percentage of their total populations.
Vilas County near Michigan's Upper Peninsula gained 716 residents since spring of 2020, a 3.1 percent bump. In Burnett County, which borders Minnesota, the population likewise jumped by 3.1 percent, although that increase represented a relatively modest number of 510 additional residents.
Johnson says that could be a result of people who've retreated from urban areas to be closer to nature.
"Everyone I've talked to thinks it's the ... lifestyle popularity of moving up there and living in a more rural area with access to great parks and things like that," he said. "Many more people moved to the Northwoods than moved away from it, and that's what drove whatever population growth those counties did see."