Hispanics are fueling population growth, offsetting declines in Minnesota

Isabella Agustin left Guatemala when she was 17 because her parents couldn't afford to pay for her studies. She found her way to Worthington, Minn., after her husband's brother talked up the region.

"He told him that here you can have more opportunity to have a house or to get a job," Agustin said. "That's why we decided to come here."

Agustin's husband works on a hog farm and she works part-time at a hotel. They dream of one day buying their own farm. She said Worthington residents have always been welcoming.

"It's very quiet, and my kids have freedom, they can run out in my garden," Agustin said. "It's like living in my country because it's like a small town."

Hispanics have helped fuel growth and offset declining populations in some rural counties, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Minnesota is still one of the whitest states in the country, with 4.4 million whites out of an estimated population of almost 5.5 million residents. But about 87 percent of population growth in the state last year came from people who identify as black or African-American, Asian, American Indian or Hispanic, said Andi Egbert, assistant director of the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

"We see the real engines of growth are coming from our populations of color," Egbert said. "I think that is a surprise to people, just how dramatic the growth is among populations of color."

The number of whites who don't identify as Hispanic grew less than 1 percent between 2010 and 2015. During that same period, the number of residents who identified as Hispanic increased by 10 percent.

"That's a combination of growth from immigration and also higher birth rates in those communities, and more people at those ages where they're building their families," Egbert said.

The numbers show that it's not just an urban phenomenon. Just last year, the white population grew in only 28 of 87 Minnesota counties, but in all but four counties, the number of people of color increased.

Some rural counties that have been hit especially hard by declining and aging populations in recent years are seeing gains now due to Hispanics moving into the region.

In Nobles County, where Agustin and her family live, the number of white residents declined last year by more than 100, the Hispanic population increased by 218, according to Census data. The county is now 27 percent Hispanic.

Many people who move to the area are drawn to JBS, a pork processing plant, said Darlene Macklin, executive director of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce.

"They may come here because of a certain job or they may have families that are here," Macklin said. "That may be what brought them here, but as they get settled into our community, we also are seeing them open up businesses in Worthington."

She said those businesses include grocery stores, bakeries and gathering places. These days, she said there are very few vacancies downtown.

Even the growth in the number of people of color and Hispanics into the state isn't enough to reverse some trends demographers worry about. Although people of color are on average a younger population, there aren't enough to reverse the overall aging of the state as baby boomers move into retirement age. The median age of the state is now 37.9 years.

While 2010 data showed that there were five adults of working age for each elderly person, Minnesota is fast approaching a ratio of four working adults for each older adult, according to Allison Liuzzi, a research scientist at the Minnesota Compass project of Wilder Research.

Liuzzi said the number of babies born in recent years has declined across all demographic groups.

"That's pretty striking to see that decline in fertility and the lingering results of the Great Recession," she said.

While Minnesotans fare better overall than residents of many other states, there are wide disparities between people of color and whites in areas like income, graduation rates and health outcomes.

"If we don't address those gaps, especially by race, they're only going to get bigger as our youth, who are more racially and ethnically diverse, age into the workforce," Liuzzi said. "We really need to make sure that we're preparing our workforce of tomorrow for the jobs that we see tomorrow."