Population increases slightly after three years of decline

CASPER — After three straight years of decline, Wyoming’s population saw a slight increase in its population during the second half of 2018 and first half of 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimate — though those numbers cut off right before dramatic changes occurred in Wyoming’s coal industry. The state’s population still has significant ground to gain to reach a peak population achieved in 2015. 

According to numbers released Monday morning, Wyoming’s total resident population grew by an estimated 1,158 persons — or 0.2 percent — between July 2018 and July 2019, the Census Bureau reported, bringing the state’s total population to an estimated 578,880. 

Much of the growth, according to state economists, was driven largely by the state’s energy sector, helping to leverage double-digit employment growth in areas like the state’s construction industry. That sector alone saw growth of nearly 14 percent over the past year, accounting for more than 60 percent of all new jobs in Wyoming between 2018 and 2019. 

“People tend to move to areas where the economy is vibrant, which is particularly true for Wyoming,” Wenlin Liu, the chief economist with the state’s Economic Analysis Division, said in a statement. 

An improvement after years of decline, Monday’s total still falls well short of the record population of just over 586,000 people set in 2015 — just before an energy bust tanked the state’s economy. The improvement comes with a number of caveats as well, with a significant number of births helping to hide the fact that an estimated 470 more residents moved out of Wyoming than moved into it. 

While those numbers are significantly better than those reported between 2017 and 2018 — when an estimated 3,300 people left the state — the July 1 cutoff for the bureau’s record keeping came just before a number of significant events in the Powder River Basin threw the state’s energy sector into upheaval. It also predated the official closure of Cody Labs, which shuttered operations for its more than 80 employees in early September. 

While it is unclear what this means for Wyoming’s overall employment — the Equality State still boasts one of the nation’s largest proportions of aging baby boomers still in the workforce, leaving plenty of positions likely to be vacated over the coming years — the continuing exodus of young workers could, in the long term, abate some of the positivity shown in Monday’s estimates, Liu wrote in an email. 

“The upheaval (that) happened this past summer was not reflected in the migration and population estimation period, but it will impact the state’s economic trend,” Liu wrote. “Particularly given the fact that Wyoming’s surrounding states’ unemployment rates are all lower than that of Wyoming and their job growths were faster, and this will attract many of our unemployed younger workers out.” 

According to Liu, Wyoming’s three-year recovery has already seen signs of slowing in the final months of 2019 as job growth has diminished and unemployment has begun to rise after several months of decline. 

Meanwhile, the state’s future has already begun to look grayer, with the ripples of the 2015 downturn in the state’s energy industry contributing to a marked decline in the state’s birthrate and an increasing gap between the state’s old and young populations. In an email, Liu noted that Wyoming still has a significant population gap between its baby boomers and those belonging to Generation X, with about 15,000 fewer individuals aged 45-54 compared to 55-64. 

According to state economists, Wyoming saw its birthrate decline roughly 5 percent over the past four years, one of the worst declines in a country that, according to the Census Bureau, is experiencing some of the lowest rates of population growth in its history. 

“The downturn of Wyoming’s energy dependent economy in 2015 and 2016 drove many residents out of the state, and the out-migration of this younger working population was also responsible for the fast decline of births.” Liu said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, the state’s aging population — proportionately among the nation’s fastest-growing demographics and estimated to cost the state millions of dollars annually — is continuing to swell, growing at a rate nearly 1 percent faster than the rest of the country. 

“Both the number and the proportion of old residents will continue to grow fast in the coming decades as more boomers age into 65 years old, and so will the number of deaths,” Liu said in a statement. “Consequently, policy makers in many states must place increased attention on caring for a larger and more dependent aging population, and dealing with the realities of a slow-growing labor force.”