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Unsurprisingly, Brown County Gains Prime Working Age Population While Neighbors Lose

My paywalled local weekend paper reported stats from the Economic Innovation Group showing that, from 2007 to 2017, 80% of counties across the country lost prime working age population, residents aged 25 to 54. In South Dakota, 85% of counties lost prime working age residents. Only ten counties saw that age group expand: Lincoln, Minnehaha, Brookings, Brown, Buffalo, Todd, Jackson, Oglala Lakota, Pennington, and Mead.

Prime Working Age Population Change SD by county 2007-2017 AAN/EIG
Change in population ages 25–54 from 2007 to 2017. Graphic by Aberdeen American News {paywall}, 2019.12.13; data from Economic Innovation Group. Key: Yellow: growth over 10%. Darkest blue: growth 0–10%. Paler blue: loss 0–10%. Palest blue: loss more than 10%.

“It’s clear that Brown County and Aberdeen are doing something right,” says reporter Erin Ballard. “But pinpointing the exact reason that more people are working and staying in the area is much more difficult.”

Actually, it’s not difficult at all. Brown County grows because it is surrounded by counties that have far fewer and less diverse opportunities for economic, intellectual, and cultural enrichment. Aberdeen’s factories and stores draw a variety of workers and families. Aberdeen’s three high schools and two colleges attract students and professionals and support cultural events that give people more reason to stick around. Aberdeen’s two hospitals draw another batch of professionals and folks old and young with chronic health care needs. The Hub City naturally drains residents from surrounding areas who would rather not have to spend more than an hour driving to get fresh fruit, work boots, heart pills, or dance lessons.

As a result, Brown County gains population while counties around it shrink. But even with its economic and cultural advantages, Brown County still lost jobs over the same period that its prime working age population grew, as did Brookings County.

Ballard spends much time quoting local business leaders—Jewett, Bockorny, Ochs—on all the admirable efforts the business community makes to build a welcoming culture. And yes, any community that wants to grow needs to make an effort to live its professed values of friendliness and sharing rather than just market them as a veneer over small-town insularity and suspicion. But Aberdeen has to work extra hard at offering that welcoming culture and promoting its other benefits. The geographical benefit of being the only big town within an hour’s drive for some 75,000 people also cuts against us, as we are one of the most isolated big towns in the country. We have to convince prospective workers and residents not only that we have a lot to do but that we have enough to justify being three hours away from the next biggest cities with change-of-pace fun and regularly affordable airfares. We can’t afford to turn away any willing comers, because while we have an easy sell to anyone moving from Ellendale, Faulkton, or Eureka, that prospect pool is pretty small and getting smaller. Our future growth relies on drawing people from bigger places who didn’t grow up in small-town South Dakota and who will by joining our community make Aberdeen someplace different.


  1. Kal Lis 2019-12-17

    The analysis about Brown County probably also explains the population growth in Lincoln, Minnehaha, Brookings, Pennington, and Meade counties.

    It doesn’t seem to fit Buffalo, Todd, Jackson, Oglala Lakota. I’m guessing a combination of reasons including being trapped by economic inequality explain those counties ability to retain populations.

  2. Debbo 2019-12-17

    Wikipedia says Aberdeen’s population is just over 26,000. It was 25,000 when I was there in the early 1970s, so basically it’s hanging on. That’s all. Not really encouraging. I can’t see much of a future for Aberdeen as the surrounding 100 miles drains people.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-18

    Kal Lis, that’s an interesting thought: given the cultural pressures that keep young Lakota people from moving away from their communities, perhaps our Indian counties show us what the rest of South Dakota would look like demographically if we didn’t suffer from brain drain.

    But yes, those reservation counties run counter to the thesis about South Dakota’s hubs and white rural counties: the lack of economic opportunity in Oglala Lakota, Todd, Jackson, and Buffalo counties doesn’t cause the same loss of population that we see elsewhere.

  4. jakc 2019-12-18

    A couple of points:
    The dark blue ranges from 0 to 10% so this isn’t necessarily growth. The four reservation counties Todd (Rosebud), Buffalo (Crow Creek) Oglala Lakota and Jackson (Pine Ridge, with about half of Jackson being part of the Pine Ridge reservation) have higher birth rates than non-reservation counties, leading to a larger cohort of young people at the bottom of the age bracket. 25 to 54 is a pretty wide age bracket; it would be interesting to see the distribution by age on the reservation counties versus the four metro counties (Meade/Pennington and Lincoln/Minnehaha) to get some sense of how much of the growth on reservations is due to higher birth rates and how much those birth rates mask the loss of older cohorts through migration and through higher mortality rates.
    Census numbers on the reservations are also notoriously suspect (usually well under the real population), but the larger point is that most non-reservation counties have been declining in population for 100 years or more. For whatever the reason, reservations, not just in SD but in other western states, have long had larger populations than non-reservation counties, so in that sense, the graphic is not surprising. Three of the four counties are more than 80% Lakota; the lower percentage on Jackson is partially offset by the higher birth rate on the Pine Ridge reservation in general. Many of the counties with a slower growth loss are reservation counties with a significant white population (compare the demographic differences of Dewey and Ziebach to Corson).
    Of course, the county-wide graphics are misleading, especially in West River. The growth in Meade/Pennington is largely on a narrow strip between RC and Sturgis, and then around RC. Meade, Pennington and Jackson are more than 8,100 square miles and only a small fraction of that area is actually growing (probably no more than 10% of the area indicated in the graph is responsible for the growth). Once off the reservations, most of the growth in SD is limited to RC and SF.
    It’s something that SD lawmakers really need to start looking at seriously. Aberdeen’s growth is largely of consolidation. Since the baby boom peaked fifty years ago, the county has barely grown. Of course, while the growth in Rapid City has been significant, it hasn’t been reflected much in the schools. That is to say, consolidation and aging have kept the population steady in Aberdeen and fueled the growth in Rapid City. Really, outside of the reservations, SF is the only place showing much growth in the schools. Just look at high schools in the state. Sioux Valley is the only new public HS that has opened/stepped up in class due to growth in the state (outside of RC or SF or the reservations) in the last fifty years. Brookings has captured some of the growth from SDSU, but it lags behind other midwestern college towns – and Vermillion seems to lost most of the growth from USD to Sioux Falls. SF seems to exist, at least in part as a tax haven for midwestern states, but modern life doesn’t require most wealthy Americans to move to SD to gain tax or trust advantages. Ardmore, south of Hot Springs, is apparently a ghost town now, and there seems to be no plan by SD Republicans to save Hot Springs or Lemmon, or Miller or dozens of other small SD towns.

  5. John 2019-12-25

    Consolidation v growth. Glance at other area towns that benefited from consolidation for generation or two. That consolidation maxed out so those towns are losing population.

    Recall that 30% of US counties increased poverty from 2016 to 2018 (Pew).

    Yet, in a grand scale we are living in remarkable times even as our obsolete economic model for farms, ranches, and small towns continues imploding. Poverty decreased worldwide from 2010 to present. Just as Hans Rosling predicted via his book, Factfulness, and many YouTube lectures.

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