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Monona County leads Iowa in graying population trend

By Jody Ewing, Journal Correspondent
May 17, 2004

Photo by Jody Ewing

This is a photo of downtown Onawa, Iowa, location of “The Widest Main Street in the United States.” Onawa is the county seat of Monona County, the only county in Iowa to have more people over age 65 than under age 17.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Monona County is the only Iowa county to have more people over age 65 than under age 17. Population experts report that many rural Iowa counties could possess the same demographic characteristics in a few years. To that end, Journal Correspondent Jody Ewing examines how Monona County leaders are addressing the issues in a two-part series, starting today.

ONAWA, Iowa — Monona County holds a record for the widest main street in the United States. It passes through the heart of the county seat here.

The county now holds another mark, one that worries experts: It is the only county in Iowa to have more people over age 65 than under age 17.

Trends show that may be the case for half of Iowa’s counties in the next 20 years.

Composed of 10 incorporated communities and their surrounding rural areas, Monona County also has a lower percentage of young people (19 or younger) and a higher percentage of older people (age 65+) compared to the state.

According to Kate Schwennsen, associate dean of Iowa State University’s College of Design, Iowa ranks third among the states in the longevity of its residents, but 49th in retaining young people.

In the past two decades Monona County has seen that steady decline in the number of young adults choosing to raise families here. Enrollment for the West Monona School District currently stands at 714, down from 1,100 students 1980.

The graying of Iowa

Some analysts are asking, “Will Monona County serve as a forecaster for the rest of Iowa?”

Schwennsen and other leading state experts addressed Iowa’s forecast and other key issues in a forum last month at the Gateway Center in Ames. “Imagine Iowa: Designing Iowa’s Future,” brought Iowa leaders together to disclose ominous trends while debating solutions to strengthen Iowa’s development.

Their concerns reflected a number of problems that began in the 1980s and took their greatest toll on places like Monona County.

“Between 1980 and 1990, only four states didn’t grow, and only two declined — West Virginia and Iowa,” said Iowa’s former state economist Harvey Siegelman. “We lost one-third of our car dealerships, one-third of our implement dealers, one-third of our banks. We lost two-thirds of the value of our farmland.”

Iowa Farm Bureau Federation research specialist Mark Salvador noted the many cattle lots converted to soybean ground in the 1970s when the cattle industry moved west and south, and the crop’s value soared to $10 per bushel. But soybean prices and land values dived in the 1980s, and much of the land went into conservation programs and the withering farm economy clobbered Iowa’s small towns, Salvador said at the convention.

Land values, interest rates stifle

Charles Hitchman III, president of Blencoe State Bank with branches in Onawa and Blencoe, cites three major factors for the declining young population in Monona County.

“Land values went from $1,605 in 1981 to $632 in 1986,” said the third-generation banker. “The interest rate doubled from about 9 percent to 18 percent in just one year. Farmers were trying to pay off farmland and equipment at the higher rate. A combine alone could be $50,000, and at 18 percent they just couldn’t do it.”

Banks used to lend based on capital, Hitchman said, and when the land value sank, it took borrowing power away from landowners. Banks lost money on property sales and equipment, often recouping only half to 35 percent of value. Loans now are based on the borrower’s repayment capacity.

Though Monona County land values have steadily increased since 1986 and peaked in 2003 at $1,914, herbicide control and horsepower mechanisms have once again changed the agricultural industry’s direction.

“Cultivators and tractors got wider and they have more horsepower now,” said Hitchman. “Farmers used to cultivate three times. Now you spray with herbicide and you’re done. You don’t need all the farm labor. In 10 years, [Blencoe’s] Sherman Township lost 100 people in farming.”

In addition to changes in agriculture, Hitchman cites the lack of jobs as well as families having fewer children for playing a significant role in Monona County’s growing elderly population.

“My parents’ generation usually had six to eight kids,” he says. “My generation had three, and few moved back once they graduated from college. We need halfway decent jobs to encourage people to stay or come back. If you’re a nurse or doctor or teacher, or work for the county or Westendorf in administration, then you can get a good job.”

Brain Drain: Educate, export

Finding a well-paying job often means higher education. Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 13.4 percent of Monona County residents 25 years and older hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the U.S. average of 24.4 percent. Those with a high school degree or higher make up 81.7 percent, compared to the U.S. average of 80.4 percent.

“We educate them and then send them out,” said Hitchman of the out-migration known as Iowa’s ‘Brain Drain.’ “The reason is there are no (available) jobs here for people with advanced degrees.”

West Monona School Superintendent Dr. John Stanton echoed Hitchman’s sentiments.

“There’s not enough employment possibilities, and not enough social opportunities that they desire,” said Stanton, whose school district is composed of 189 square miles, consolidating communities of Onawa, Turin and Blencoe.

Despite the out-migration of Iowa’s college graduates, Stanton said he hasn’t seen much of a change in Monona County over the nine years he’s served as superintendent.

“I didn’t notice we were economically disadvantaged because of this,” he said. “Since passing the one-cent sales tax for school infrastructure, we’ve had two construction additions.”

Part II: Education and economic development are keys to reversing or halting graying population trends.

Copyright © 2005 Sioux City Journal
Monday, May 17, 2004


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