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Census numbers show a surge in diversity in Grand Forks County

Kevin Iverson, the North Dakota demographer, said this is what happens when people around the country follow the promise of economic opportunity.

Grand Forks town sign logo tower Highway 2.jpg
A sign on Highway 2 welcomes visitors to Grand Forks. (Grand Forks Herald)
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GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks is far more racially diverse than it was 10 years ago, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Census data shows that the share of white residents in Grand Forks County fell from 90.3% in 2010 to 82.1% in 2020 as the share of Black, Asian and mixed-race residents all saw increases of nearly 2% or more.

In fact, among people who only identify by one race, white residents were the only group to actually see a population loss in Grand Forks County between 2010 and 2020, with the total population falling by 302 — from 60,358 to 60,056. Black residents saw a gain of 1,704 people; Asian residents saw an increase of 1,203, and mixed-race people saw an increase of 1,490 persons.

Kevin Iverson, North Dakota's state demographer, said this is what happens when people around the country follow the promise of economic opportunity: Grand Forks and North Dakota start to look like the rest of the U.S. And Iverson said that’s likely to continue.

Grand Forks and North Dakota are still far more white than the rest of the nation. But Iverson said years of ample jobs and low unemployment have spurred interest in North Dakota.

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“There’s a couple of things going on here,” Iverson said. “You have in-migration coming into the state. The state has an abundance of jobs and demand for individuals. This is something that, I’d say 20 years ago, we didn’t face. There weren't a lot of ‘help wanted’ signs out.”

That shows up in interesting ways in some of the other federal data on the region. Grand Forks County’s gender mix was 0.4% more male in 2019 than it was 10 years prior — which Iverson said is often a demographic quirk of places that see waves of in-migration.

Other federal data show the share of Grand Forks County residents in federally defined poverty fell by about 1% from 2009 to 2019, and the share of native-born residents dropped by 2.8%.

“The question of, is (that diversity) a cause of economic success or a result of economic success — the answer is yes to both,” said UND economist David Flynn. “It’s not one or the other. I think economic successes attract population, and it attracts a diverse population. The diversity also can become attractive in terms of economic growth and development prospects as well. It’s not a surprise to see the two go hand in hand.”

The local numbers are similar across the border. In Polk County, 2020 census data show the white share of the population dropped by 6% between 2020 and 2010, from about 93.3% to 87.3%. Other federal demographic data shows a 1.2% increase in the share of men in Polk County between 2009 and 2019.

This is not to say that everything is rosy in Grand Forks’ economy. Fargo, just a short drive to the south, has begun to eclipse Grand Forks’ economic power in the state, with robust workforce growth that far outpaced its neighbor to the north. In fact, Federal Reserve data show that Grand Forks County’s civilian labor force is still close to late 1990s levels, while Cass County’s is far higher.

But, Flynn points out, there’s also a question of composition. The kinds of jobs that comprise that workforce has likely changed over the years.

“(And) it’s no secret, it’s an ongoing issue to retain workers,” Flynn said. “ Attracting workers can be an issue as well. The fact that you have economic success and a community that can be viewed as already clearly welcoming people of different backgrounds can be an enormous asset in terms of that attraction and retention.”

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Keith Lund, the head of the local Economic Development Corporation, also hailed the news of Grand Forks’ diversity as a sign of economic potential.

“There are a lot of research and reports that (indicate) the greater the diversity in your community, the greater the growth and stability in your economy,” he said.

He noted that it can be hard to parse, though. Which one is causing the other?

“I would say that generally speaking, from my point of view, opportunity drives growth,” Lund added. “And opportunity drives growth across the board. If the community is welcoming and opening to newcomers, that will move the diversity needle.”

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