Tom Lubnau: Statistics Don't Lie -- Young People Are Fleeing Wyoming

Columnist Tom Lubnau writes, "What is it about our state that is driving the young away, and attracting the old? Lack of opportunity? Lack of healthcare options? State policies that attracts older people while driving away younger people?"

Tom Lubnau

February 28, 20244 min read

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Mark Twain said there are lies, damned lies and statistics.  He’s probably right. 

But those statistics are also an interesting tool to understand how state policies are working to change the daily lives of Wyoming citizens. Taking a few unrelated sets of statistics, and comparing them over a time period gives us the opportunity to see things in a way we haven’t seen them before. 

If you don’t like statistical analysis, this column probably won’t be an enjoyable read, but the analysis raises some interesting questions.   There are so many questions, we’ll explore the data in a two-part series.

Let’s take some time and compare the change in Wyoming’s population from 2014 to 2023, with the change in Wyoming’s school population.  

The estimates of Wyoming’s population can be found on the United States Census Bureau's website.  The total school population for each school year can be found on the Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website. The enrollment in public schools is called “total membership”.  To that amount, we add the total number of children home schooled in Wyoming, to reach a total school population.  

Based on the figures obtained from the Wyoming Department of Education, the total school enrollment was calculated by adding the public-school enrollment to the home school enrollment and the private school enrollment to reach a total school enrollment figure.  Since the private school data was only available in odd numbered years, I assumed the population stayed the same for the years for which no data was available.

School graph 2 28 24

In the period from 2014-2015, the population of students enrolled in school decreased from 98,558 to 96,336, or a total decrease of school age students by 2,222.  

Now, let’s compare the school population figures with the total state population figures. 

Education graph 2 2 27 24

Taking 2014-15 as a base line, the table compares the change in school population with the change in total population.  One would expect, if total population changes, in a normal situation, school population would change in the same proportion.   If it does not, the numbers are trying to tell us something.    

In 2020, the chart shows funny things began to happen.  The total population of the state began to increase, while the total school enrollment began to decline.  School population decreased by 1127 students, while state population increased by increased by 6393 people. 

At the same time, according to the United States Census Bureau, the median age in the state of Wyoming, for the period from 2014 to 2022 increased from 36.6 years to 39.1 years old.  A three-year jump in average age in a span of eight years is a statistically significant shift. 

School population decreases when young families with children leave the state.  Total population increases when more people come into the state.  When school population decreases, and total population increases, only people without children move into the state.  In other words, old people without young children are moving to Wyoming, and families with young children are moving out of Wyoming.

What is happening to cause this paradoxical shift? What is it about our state that is driving the young away, and attracting the old?  Is it lack of opportunity?  Is it a lack of healthcare options?  Is it a state policy that attracts older people while driving away younger people?

Demographic shifts like what we are seeing are important to the future of the state.  Old people with money are interested in low taxes, pickle ball courts, geriatric care and nursing homes.  Young people with families are interested in schools, youth opportunities, health care, recreation and employment possibilities. 

Is it possible our policy makers are plunging the state into a death spiral, where state policies will drive the young from out state, while protecting a low-tax geriatric friendly environment, where the last senior citizen do age out shuts off the lights? 

More questions than answers arise with the data. 

What is obvious is we are seeing an extreme demographic shift.  What is not so obvious is where that shift is taking the State of Wyoming. 

Tom Lubnau served in the Wyoming Legislature from 2005 - 2015 and is a former Speaker of the House.

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Tom Lubnau