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Census 2020 data illustrates Idaho’s urban, rural divide

More people moved to Idaho’s urban areas between 2010 and 2020, while rural counties depopulated. Madison County, home of Rexburg and BYU-Idaho, had the highest growth rate in the state.  (Idaho Capital Sun)
More people moved to Idaho’s urban areas between 2010 and 2020, while rural counties depopulated. Madison County, home of Rexburg and BYU-Idaho, had the highest growth rate in the state. (Idaho Capital Sun)
By Clark Corbin and Audrey Dutton Idaho Capital Sun

Although Idaho was the second-fastest growing state in the country and home to one of the United States’ fastest-growing cities, U.S. Census Bureau data shows how unequally divided that growth was.

While Meridian was highlighted as the fourth-fastest growing city in the country from 2010-2020, Meridian wasn’t even the fastest growing city in Idaho. A Census Bureau spokeswoman told the Idaho Capital Sun their fastest-growing list was capped at cities with a population of 50,000 or more.

Smaller towns, which weren’t included in the Census Bureau’s list of fastest growing cities, are more subject to greater population swings because of the low starting point.

For instance:

•Star, an Ada County city located west of Boise, grew by 91.9%. Population increased from 5,793 in 2010 to 11,117 in 2020.

•Middleton, a Canyon County town that is located between Boise and Nampa and situated near Star, grew by 70.6%, from 5,524 in 2010 to 9,425 in 2020.

•Stanley, located in Custer County in central Idaho, grew by 84.1%, from 63 people in 2010 to 116 in 2020.

Each of those grew by a greater percentage than Meridian, which saw its population increase by more than 56%, from 75,092 in 2010 to 117,635 in 2020.

Overall, the Treasure Valley’s growth drove much of the state’s population growth. Ada and Canyon counties alone added 146,748 people between 2010 and 2020, whereas the state of Idaho as a whole added 271,524 people.

But over the same 10-year period, 71 named towns and cities in Idaho lost population.

Idaho’s urban-rural divide

The disparity is an example of the urban-rural divide, said Jan Roeser, a labor economist with the Idaho Department of Labor.

While cities and bedroom communities in the Treasure Valley and the eastern Idaho counties of Madison (41% growth) and Bonneville (18.9% growth) grew by leaps and bounds, many smaller, rural or isolated communities experienced modest growth or lost population.

“Out of our 201 cities in Idaho, about 70 of them have had negative growth or zero growth and this is disturbing, in my opinion,” Roeser said. “It does show there is a shift in these young people growing up in rural communities who are leaving and are going to larger areas in Idaho or leaving the state. So we have to address it.”

Generally speaking, communities that grew have housing, jobs, education and access to recreation or quality of life amenities, Roeser said.

In smaller, rural communities, housing, jobs, shopping, education and recreation can all be challenges.

“Some of the biggest puzzles out there, in my opinion, involve what comes first, the egg or the chicken?” Roeser said. “When it comes to housing, how do you get housing into these rural areas so people move there, before the people come? You need the housing in place, but you do not have developers willing to invest in areas unless people are going there.”

That’s not to say all rural areas struggled.

The city of Twin Falls grew by 17.4% over the last decade. Caldwell grew by 29.8%. Kimberly grew by 41.7%.

Those areas all have some combination of affordable housing, jobs and access to retail, services or recreation.

But even some large cities in Idaho struggled.

Pocatello, the eastern Idaho city home to Idaho State University, experienced modest growth of 3.8% over the past decade, well below the state average of 17.3%.

“Pocatello is just a little surprising to me. It has nice foothills around it like Boise and some people think it could really attract people, especially with recreation close by,” Roeser said. “But a lot of the retail and housing has moved to Idaho Falls. That’s where people are going.”

How does this affect redistricting?

Changes in population will play a big role in Idaho’s redistricting process, which begins Sept. 1-3 with public meetings at the Statehouse.

Redistricting is the process of redrawing the state’s 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts based on the new census 2020 data.

Redistricting is required by the U.S. Constitution, the Idaho Constitution and Idaho law to ensure that representation is proportional. One of the major goals – in simplest terms – is to divide the state into equally sized legislative and congressional districts to ensure representation is proportional across the state.

The inequality of growth that Idaho has experienced means the old districts will have to be scrapped and redrawn.

One legislative district’s population, District 14 in western Ada County, grew by 58.9% from 2010-2020, according to census data sorted by Idaho Legislative Services Office staff. At the same time, District 6, which includes Lewis and Nez Perce counties, saw its population grow by just 5.9% over the same time period. Now, District 6’s population is 13.2% less than the ideal district size.

In 2020, the population of District 14 was 71,366, compared to just 45,623 in District 6.

There was another surprise in Census 2020 data. Madison County now has what is close to an ideal population for a legislative district at 52,913. (The ideal population for a legislative district is 52,546, based on dividing Idaho’s population by 35.) Currently, Madison County and a portion of Bonneville County are combined to form legislative District 34. Depending on how the redistricting process plays out this year, Madison County is likely to stand alone as its own legislative district going forward.

“It shows the redistricting commission has some work to do to balance those districts out under the equal protection clause (of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution),” said Keith Bybee, deputy division manager for budget and policy for the Legislative Services Office.

Bybee spoke by phone with redistricting commissioners last week and said they understand the time constraints and importance of their assignment, given the Census Bureau data arrived late due to COVID-19 delays and the state faces a tight timeline with the May 2022 primary looming.

“To a person they are all interested in doing the right thing by the state of Idaho and doing it expeditiously,” Bybee said. “During the meeting they all cared for one another’s priorities and were already working to get to ‘yes.’ They weren’t trying to throw fastballs by the other side.”

Once the redistricting commission convenes its first meeting Sept. 1, the commission will have 90 days to deliver its maps and plan to the Idaho Secretary of State’s office.

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