Jefferson City area’s slight population drop tied to economy

While the Jefferson City metropolitan area’s population has remained constant over the past decade, it saw a slight decline from 2019-20, which researchers say could indicate a troubled economy.

Data from the US Census Bureau from its 2020 population estimates shows that the metropolitan area’s population has declined 0.5 percent, down to just over 150,000.

The University of Missouri Small Business Development Center expansion released an analysis of the census data. The report examines what changes in population say about the overall economic health of a place. Growing populations are an indication of expanding economies, while slow moving populations can indicate ailing economies that are pushing workers away.

The Jefferson City metropolitan area, which includes Counties of Cole, Callaway, Moniteau, and Osage, lost 775 people. Cole County lost 75 percent of the area’s population while Callaway and Moniteau Counties saw small increases.

“Since this data covers July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, I would suspect – but I’m not sure – that some of these losses were due to people displaced by the May 2019 tornado,” said Mark White, the MU professor who wrote the report. “Something similar, but on a much larger scale, happened 10 years ago with the Joplin tornado.”

White said the biggest long-term problem the Jefferson City area is facing is not so much an overall loss of the overall population, but rather more people are leaving the area than moving there.

“In many cases, this generally speaks of a relative lack of opportunity,” said White. “It’s not that there are no opportunities, it’s just that there isn’t enough to boost real growth, to create a more positive growth cycle where growth creates more growth.”

Regardless of that loss, White said the number of people and jobs in the Jefferson City metropolitan area, which has around 75,000 jobs and 150,000 people, has remained constant since 2010.

Jefferson City’s economy is powered by state government, which White said has its pros and cons. While the region’s population stability is due to the persistence of employment in the state government, he said those jobs tend to have below-average wages. This results in consumers spending less money and contributing less to the economy.

White said a major challenge for Jefferson City is getting the existing population to age and not be replaced by people of working age, which could anticipate a future population decline. He added that the population decline is leading to fewer workers, fewer consumers, shrinking tax bases and other negatives.

“Long story short, if you don’t grow, you’re not keeping up – in a national context – and you’re falling behind,” said White.

Missouri’s population grew 0.2 percent from 2019-2020, adding more than 11,000 new residents. The report shows that Missouri’s growth rate is broadly in line with that of other Midwestern states and neighboring states, despite being only half the national growth rate of 0.4 percent.

Kansas City, Springfield, and Columbia saw their urban populations grow, while St. Louis saw a zero percent change. St. Joseph’s urban population fell even more than Jefferson City’s, down 0.6 percent.

Looking ahead, White said Jefferson City leaders and residents shouldn’t be alarmed as cities across the Midwest face similar situations. Instead, he said they should focus on giving people more reasons to live in the region and diversifying their employment base so that it is less dependent on the state government.

“Less concern and alarm and more awareness of the challenge and a long-term commitment to addressing that challenge,” said White.

Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the President of the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce, said diversifying the economy is the primary goal of any business organization like the Chamber of Commerce.

“Our recent efforts have centered on two major business corridors in Jefferson City: West Edgewood Drive and the Partnership Business Park,” said Plummer. “We will continue to play a supportive role in this, particularly through our work in growing small businesses and addressing the challenges facing the workforce of existing companies.”

Plummer said programs like the chamber’s Young Professionals and Leadership Jefferson City engage aspiring community leaders and build solid connections to keep residents and attract others to the area.

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