Immigrant Population Revitalizes State
Friday, November 7, 2014
After the farm crisis of the 1980s, young people fled Iowa's smaller towns and farming communities, headed for bigger cities and non-agricultural jobs. Often, they left the state. The remaining populations aged and the tax bases dwindled while infrastructure eroded, or vanished, all together. Politicians and demographers predicted the imminent demise of small town economies in the state. Between, 1980 and 1990, the state’s population decreased by nearly 4 percent.
Over the next two decades, however, including the 1990s — which saw some of the worst flooding and catastrophic crop damage the state had ever known — the decline began a significant reversal. During that decade, the state’s Latino population grew by 153 percent, making it the non-white community in Iowa. In another decade, the 2010 census put Iowa’s population at just over 3 million: The highest ever recorded. Social scientists link the rebounding population and robust economy with an influx of Latin American immigrants.
Initially attracted by jobs on farms or in meat packing plants, the Latinos who came to Iowa settled down and joined their communities. They raised families and opened businesses. In some small towns, such as West Liberty, near Iowa City, non-Latinos make up the minority. In several others, the Latinos account for nearly half of the residents.
In Iowa, Latino entrepreneurs rarely rely on banks or credit, according to a 2014 study from the American Immigration Council. Rather, they typically start businesses by using personal savings and relying on family members to work. This model of entrepreneurship proved to be successful in the rural Midwest where small towns and city neighborhoods that were, essentially, dying on the vine. As such businesses grow, first attracting Spanish-speaking clientele and, ultimately, a broader customer base, they create jobs and add to the local economy.
It is not only small towns that are reaping the benefits of immigration. In Des Moines, Iowa’s capital and largest city, Latinos now account for about 12 percent of the city’s 207,000 residents. The Latino community revitalized and rejuvenated many of the city’s languishing neighborhoods. They bought houses and started new businesses in areas abandoned by whites and residents from other population groups. Importantly, the Latino population is young. The median age is 22 years (the median age for all other populations combined is 38), and, in Des Moines, 23 percent of the public school students are from Latino households.
Despite some resistance toward in immigration in Iowa, it is difficult for citizens to argue with the numbers. One’s memory doesn’t have to be too long to remember Main Streets of abandoned storefronts, school consolidations and hospital closures. A lot of immigrant perseverance and little tolerance is all it takes to pull an entire state’s economy back from the brink.