Arkansas more diverse, older in census data; migration to urban areas continues

Posted: June 22, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: June 22, 2018 at 11:32 a.m.

Diversity on the rise

The aging of certain Arkansans correlates with population declines across most of the state's counties and an increase in diversity, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates released Thursday.

Arkansas counties with higher median ages were more likely to have experienced population declines from 2010 to 2017, according to an analysis of the data. In many of those counties, residents who identified as white were more often older than younger, while residents who identified with another racial or ethnic group were more often younger than older. The decrease in and aging of white residents tracked those counties' population drops.

Overall, Arkansas has gotten older, more urban and more diverse on average. The trends in age indicate a looming economic challenge for the state and most of the country in trying to replace the unusually large baby-boom generation -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- whose oldest members have started reaching their average life expectancy.

"We need more migrants," said Pam Willrodt, a demographer at the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "We need more young, vibrant people who will then start having more babies."

The Census Bureau reported an increase in diversity nationwide along with an increase in median age from 37.2 to 38. Nationwide, only one category -- white people, not including Hispanics who identify as white -- decreased in numbers, and it decreased by only 0.02 percent to 197.8 million. That's still the largest racial demographic in the country, which has a total population of 326 million.

Experts say minority groups tend to have more children, but they cautioned that birthrates are down for every group compared with past generations, largely because of financial and cultural reasons. Generally, the only areas of the country that are younger on average than they were in 2010 are in the Great Plains, from Texas up to North Dakota and into Montana and Iowa, according to the Census Bureau.

Nationally, the baby-boom generation is causing the nation's median age to rise, the Census Bureau said in a news release.

In Arkansas, that demographic is largely white, but the average age of the state's white population compared with other races might also have to do with migration, experts said.

Some of the older white Arkansans likely have moved here to retire, Willrodt said.

Millennials aren't having as many children as previous generations, either, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. They aren't buying as many homes or getting married as young, he said.

Part of that could be related to access to birth control and a change in cultural values, Jebaraj said. But younger people are also hampered with more student-loan debt than previous generations, and their wages have remained relatively flat. A restructuring of student debt so that more loans can be taken out for longer periods of time could help millennials financially, he said.

Fewer college-age people in general are migrating to the state than in the past, Willrodt said, but she was unsure whether that was because of the cost of out-of-state tuition.

The Hispanic population in Arkansas was almost all younger than 50 years old, according to Willrodt's analysis of the data.

The Hispanic population increased 22.4 percent in Arkansas, from 186,050 residents counted in the 2010 census to 227,673 in the 2017 estimate. Hispanics now make up 7.6 percent of the state's population, up from 6.4 percent in 2010.

Rey Hernandez,* president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Northwest Arkansas, said the Hispanic population has a higher birthrate than many other groups. But many are also migrating from California because of lower housing costs and lower costs of starting a business. Many others are going where they know resources and communities already exist to support them, such as Northwest Arkansas, he said.

The Hispanic community's growth throughout the state has been helped by the availability of Hispanic foods in grocery stores and Hispanic radio stations and television channels, Hernandez said.

The Hispanic population increased in all counties but one (Pike), and it increased by 1,151 people (from 2,246 to 3,437, or 53 percent) in Lonoke County, one of the highest percentage and numeric gains in the state.

Through 2017, the number of people in Arkansas identifying with a major group -- white, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and two or more categories -- increased.

The number of nonwhite and nonblack Arkansans has been mostly steady or increasing. But the number of whites has declined, by as much as 16.4 percent in 62 of the state's 75 counties. The number of blacks has declined in 30 counties, although their total population grew statewide by 3.5 percent, from 447,863 in 2010 to 463,731 in 2017. The state's white population grew by only 0.1 percent, from 2,175,716 in 2010 to 2,177,809 in 2017.

For both groups, most of the drop is in the Delta and south Arkansas, where populations have generally been in decline for years.

While no racial group decreased in numbers, the percentage of Arkansans who identify as white dropped from 76.8 percent to 73.3 percent, while the percentages increased for the other groups.

While still making up less than 0.5 percent of the state's population, people of Hawaiian and Pacific Islander descent have had the largest percentage increase in population since 2010 -- 44.4 percent -- going from 6,685 residents to 9,653, with most of the growth occurring in Washington and Benton counties. Three other counties -- Greene, Carroll and Sevier -- saw both an increase of more than 100 Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents and a more than doubling of the Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations.

Many Marshallese have resources and connections in Arkansas, where the Marshall Islands has a consulate and where Marshallese have had an established expatriate community since the 1980s, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Marshallese continue to leave the islands, some of which are uninhabitable because of nuclear testing conducted by the United States that has created health problems for residents who leave to seek expensive care elsewhere, including Arkansas, according to the encyclopedia's entry.

The biggest reason the Marshallese move to Arkansas now is because of family pressure, said Melisa Laelan, founder and president of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.

Marshallese also are spreading throughout the state because they are being recruited in Springdale and elsewhere to fill manufacturing jobs, Laelan said.

Tyson Foods Inc., which is based in Springdale, opened a plant in Sevier County, Laelan said. It also opened a plant in Broken Bow, Okla., less than half-hour drive from De Queen in Sevier County, where Laelan said she believes many of the plant's workers have chosen to live.

The dispersion of Marshallese elsewhere in the state can be a problem for some Marshallese, she said, because while English is one of the Marshall Islands' two official languages, many don't speak it and Marshallese interpreters are not common.

"It creates a huge barrier," Laelan said.

Hernandez said many Hispanics first came to the United States for manufacturing jobs. Over time and generations, many Hispanic residents were raised and educated in the United States and speak English comfortably, he said.

He sees the Hispanic community's central challenge now in Arkansas as gaining a more proportional presence in state and local politics.

Hernandez, who served on the Benton County Quorum Court from 2013 to 2014*, and said the Bentonville City Council has a Hispanic member. It's progress and should continue, he said.

"I've been here 30 years," he said. "It's taken that long."

A Section on 06/22/2018

*CORRECTION: Rey Hernandez served on the Benton County Quorum Court from 2013-2014. His status on the quorum court was incorrectly reported and his name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.