Looking inside the 2020 North Dakota census

Al Gustin

Al Gustin

I was anxious to see the county-by-county figures from the 2020 North Dakota census. I remembered when the 2010 census figures were published, the media coverage of the report focused on the growth in Bismarck, Fargo and the oil-producing counties.

Little attention was paid to the fact that only 11 counties showed population growth from 2000 to 2010. Forty-two counties lost population. Twenty-three North Dakota counties had lost at least 10% of their population. Two counties, Towner and Sheridan, had lost more than 20% – almost a fourth of the people gone, in 10 years!

What about the succeeding decade? When the 2020 census figures were released, the media’s attention was drawn to unexpected growth in some counties – Williams up 82%, Stark up 39%, McKenzie up 131% and Cass up 23%. And getting the most attention was an increase of 16% in North Dakota’s population.

Other than the lawmakers charged with redrawing legislative boundaries, few people paid attention to the continued population decline in 30 counties. Towner and Sheridan counties lost another 4% of their people. McIntosh County, which had lost 17% from 2000 to 2010, lost another 10%. Benson County lost 10.5%. Rolette County, 12.5%.

The 2020 census showed that in the preceding 10 years, Cass County had gained more people than the combined population of the state’s 17 least populous counties. Depopulation hasn’t ended in some of the state’s most rural counties. In those counties, residents have fewer neighbors. Businesses are shuttered, schools closed or consolidated, and access to groceries and health care diminished.

In reporting on the 2010 and 2020 censuses, the media outlets were right in focusing on the areas of population growth. By definition, news is what’s unusual or unexpected. The continued depopulation of North Dakota’s most rural areas was old news – the same old bad news. But for many, it is a cruel reality, something that all of us should recognize, even if it isn’t making headlines.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.