From 2011 to 2016, the number of children in Cass County dipped 9 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates collected in Indiana Youth Institute's 2018 Kids Count Data Book.
Child population for ages 0 through 17 has also been in decline in the county for about 15 years. As Cass County went from 9,861 kids in 2011 to 8,949 in 2016, Indiana had 13 other counties that also had a 9 percent or more greater loss in children in that time frame. Only Tippecanoe and Boone counties saw its number of kids increase 8 percent or greater in those six years.
A state issue
Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University, said despite Indiana's population as a whole growing modestly — mainly concentrated in the Indianapolis metro area and LaGrange County — the number of residents in the rest of counties, mainly rural, has been in decline.
Hicks said many Indiana residents are moving to larger cities where they know they can be employed and not for a specific job, whether that's Indianapolis or another state. About 10 percent of people relocate for job, while others move based on amenities, Hicks said. People want diverse housing choices, availability of recreation and good schooling for their children.
“It’s where they want to live," he said. "People are moving to those places because they have that residential characteristic that they value.”
And as people who are born and raised in a town or city are more likely to stay in the area into adulthood, Hicks said those who are leaving typically move before the "prime childbearing years," of 18 to 35 years old. Acute population decline to that age group of adults, Hicks said, can be more damaging in the long run to a community than the loss a factory or company.
“The loss of a factory is nothing compared to a loss of big chunk of a generation," he said.
Hicks said Indiana doesn't struggle as much to keep its residents, but attract people from out of the state. The country is full of people who would want to move from a big city to a small town, he said, especially creative people who can work remotely. But, they want to confidently know that their children will receive a good education and that their home doesn't depreciate in value.
Towns and cities that focus on their amenities tend to lure in more residents, Hicks said.
“Don’t worry so much about growing your economy, worry about making your place something that people would like to live in, and it would grow on its own," Hicks said.
The decline in the number of children in Cass County has seemed to affect the county schools of Pioneer Regional School Corp., Lewis Cass Schools and Caston School Corp. more than Logansport Community School Corp. Logansport's enrollment has remained steady over the past few decades, while the three other corporations have had a significant loss of students.
Beth Dean, principal at Pioneer Elementary School, has worked for the corporation since the 1996-1997 school year. The district had more than 1,000 students during the 90s, and the enrollment has since decreased by more than 10 percent. Dean said that's caused each grade to have about 8 less kids per grade level.
“You don’t think that’s too many when you look at an individual grade but when it continues to happen and it’s in every grade level, it becomes an issue," Dean said.
And as school enrollment is attached to funding from the state, the loss of students means loss of money. When teachers have retired, Pioneer hasn't been able to replace the positions due to funding. All but one elementary grade have three sections and three teachers per grade, Dean said. The K-6 school used to have four sections and four teachers for each grade.
“You still gotta keep your doors open, you still gotta be able to pay the bills, but you have fewer students," Dean said.
Dean and Lewis Cass superintendent Tim Garland said there aren't many homes or land available in rural Cass County. As students get older graduate high school, their families stay in the area, Dean said. She said that makes it hard for young families to find homes in the county.
Garland added that more of the elderly in the county are living longer and staying in their homes, and there are only a handful of new homes being built in the Walton and Galveston area each year. Garland also said some people don't want to sell farm land for new homes.
In 1985, Lewis Cass had 2,000 students, Garland said. Now, there are 1,315 students enrolled, according to state data. The corporation also lost almost 200 students between 2011 and 2016.
"Not just for us, but for Logan and Kokomo, it's a ripple effect of more students we have, the more we have going on in our corporation, the better economy," he said. "It affects everybody else."