Sheridan – Wyoming is getting younger and richer.
Rarely do these two demographics merge and create happy endings. Wyoming is trying to be the exception.
The money part is pretty straightforward. Wyoming’s real earnings in 2006 reached their highest level in 36 years. Our job growth in 2007 was the second highest in the nation.
The aging part isn’t too difficult to figure out, either. Young wayfarers seeking fortune have long been a part of Wyoming’s economic history. What’s surprising is how long this latest batch is staying on.
Their collective youth (age 26) has caused the steady increase in our median age to slow to a crawl. In 2007 Wyoming’s median age actually reversed itself. That happened to only one other state or kind-of-state, the District of Columbia.
Not too long ago, demographers predicted Wyoming would become a state populated by what writer Jim Harrison referred to as the “cottage cheese and applesauce set.”
We weren’t in line to become really ancient, like Florida, Arizona, or West Virginia, but a clear pattern was emerging. From 1990 to 2000, Wyoming was one of only five states to see a decline in the number of residents under the age of 18. While our average median age was middle-of-the-pack as far as rankings, the rate at which we were aging was much faster than average. From 1990 to 2000, the 65 and over population in a typical state grew by twelve percent. Wyoming’s grew at almost twice that rate, 22 percent.
The overall pattern did not inspire hopeful projections. For a spell in the 1990s, every school district in Wyoming lost enrollment.
Everyone thought the latest high energy prices would solve this problem – or rather, create a new one as they did in 1975 when boom-time Wyoming could not build enough schools.
It took a while after that for the money to catch up. West Texas intermediate crude sold for under $20 per barrel in January 2002. From then on, with a few hiccups, it marched upward, as did Wyoming’s population. Yet the collective school enrollment tide did not turn until 2005. Thus far, four schools districts (Sublette, Campbell, Sweetwater, and Lincoln) make up the bulk of that increase in students.
The high demand for raw energy sources kicked off a familiar demographic dynamic: Wyoming’s population rises with the price of oil, gas, and coal. At first, single men (“transients,” as civic leaders call them with a weary tone) made up the core of this rise. It’s true that men still come to Wyoming in greater numbers than women, by about 25 percent. Yet the boom has gone on long enough that men are settling down and starting families.
This means more babies. The number of newborns from Wyoming’s resident mothers reached 7,231 in 2005, the highest since 1987.
So the question now is: how do we make the best of this opportunity of a youthful, loosely defined, in-migration?
Most of our history we’ve spent watching the young leave. Now they’re coming in. How do we build that multi-generational community that has evaded Wyoming for so long?
At the end of his life, Carl Jung wrote about the importance of recognizing an era of kairos, an indeterminate period of time during which we can adapt and take advantage of changing circumstances.
Historically, this has been difficult for us to do. Wyoming’s spent much of its life cobbling together its economic fortune by any means possible. When you ask someone in Wyoming what they do, the typical answer is: “I’ve got three jobs. Which one do you want to talk about?”
Thus, we’ve never had the luxury of worrying about the next generation. We’re too absorbed in paying for one living in our house and needing new shoes. Slowly, however, through socking money away, receiving fat royalties from federal gas and coal leases, and fully realizing that we live in Energy Central, we’ve built an economic platform that creates baseline security.
While I hate to get too shrinky in a column about state economics, Wyoming is now in a period resembling the second level of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” This stratigraphy depicts a pyramid consisting of five levels, the bottom rung being survival, i.e., chucking flint-tipped spears at animals for their meat and hides; the top level is the ability for creative spontaneity and problem solving or, in other words, the antithesis of current U.S. foreign policy.
For a long time, Wyoming never got much beyond the first level. For example, one of the first acts of Milward Simpson as governor in 1955 was to distribute $500,000 in federal drought relief for Wyoming so ranchers could buy hay. Wyoming couldn’t afford the cheapest and most common feed on earth. Six days later, Simpson asked the federal government not to release surplus food for school luncheon programs. Instead, the governor wanted to retain the beef surplus to assist unemployed miners in Rock Springs, Hanna, and Kemmerer.
Maslow’s second level deals with safety and security issues. Wyoming finally has enough money for the basics: roads, buildings and schools. But it seems we’re stuck there, slapping ourselves on the back for finally funding our own infrastructure.
It’s time for Wyoming to bet on the jockey, not the horse. The Hathaway Scholarship, a program created by the legislature in 2005 to help Wyoming kids attend college, is a fine example of such an investment.
But to give young people an incentive to stay we still have work to do. Take housing, for example. Those seeking their first Wyoming home are trying to buy into their parent’s housing market, and in a boom, no less. They can’t do it. So why is Wyoming trying to give property tax breaks to senior citizens, as we tried to do last legislative session? It’s the young homeowner who needs the break.
At the core of this people vs. infrastructure debate lie hard decisions on what constitutes a legitimate government investment and what is just a handout. The state of Wyoming provides money for a county extension agent, the one who, metaphorically, takes care of the horse, but won’t supply the funds to staff a county-built childcare center, which would help countless young people.
And our youth, ah, ’tis fleeting. Our rate of aging has slowed down and we don’t need Jung to tell us that windows of opportunity are open just so long. Not moving to some variation of Maslow’s next level, which is devoted the human condition, dooms us to live in geezerland and an energy monoculture. It also leaves us constantly reacting instead of being able anticipate, however modestly, future events.
Once in his own youth and not yet a U.S. senator (meaning he had almost a full head of hair) Malcolm Wallop ably summarized today’s struggle, even though he said it in 1975: “In response to the problems, the state has been able only to keep up with yesterday.”