Vernon County is the 31st least populated county among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. With an estimate of 30,965 residents in 2022, the county’s population has continued its steady growth in the first two years of this decade. The county gained 251 residents, equivalent to 0.8% of its population. By comparison, Wisconsin experienced population growth of 0.9% and the United States experienced population growth of 0.3% over the same period. Of the county’s 10 most populous municipalities, the Town of Clinton gained the most residents (62), while the City of Viroqua lost the most residents (-60).
In April of 2020, Vernon county’s unemployment rate climbed 6.7 percentage points, resulting in a peak rate of 11.1%, higher than the rates following the 2008 financial crisis. In December 2021, nearly two years after this initial spike, the unemployment rate fell to a historic low of 1.9%. However, high inflation has disrupted the rapid economic recovery. In June 2022, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers increased 9.1% year-over-year, the largest increase in 40 years. The economy began to slow down as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to tackle inflation. Despite this challenge, industries remained resilient. The unemployment rate remained at a historical low of 2.1% in December 2022.
Employment Change by Industry
In Vernon County, the leisure and hospitality industry suffered the second greatest numerical and proportional loss in 2020 due to the pandemic. However, the industry experienced a strong recovery over the course of 2021. Employment in the industry grew by 17.2%, adding 108 jobs during the year. The strong growth in manufacturing industry was also encouraging. The industry saw a 24.1% growth during the year 2021, the highest in the county. It accounts for 52.2% of jobs added during the year. In contrast, the manufacturing industry in the state grew roughly 1.6% during the same time frame.
Vernon County is a rural county. 41.4% of the residents travel outside of the county for work, and two-fifth of those that work in the county reside in another county. The Scenic Mississippi Regional Transit System provides weekday bus services in the county. The route connects Viroqua, Westby, and Coon Valley to the city of La Crosse. However, most of the county residents drive to work. 84.8% of employed county residents rely on a car to get to work. Over three quarters drive alone. The average commute time is 24.9 minutes. Car-centered infrastructure leads to a difficult conundrum: qualified individuals could fill a job if they had transportation and could afford transportation if they had a job. Some employers address this issue by offering telecommuting and transportation reimbursement.
Vernon County has a lower share of renters allocating more than 30% of income for housing compared to the state. Nonetheless, approximately more than four out of 10 renters still allocate more than 30% of income to housing. In addition to cost, housing availability is also a challenge in Wisconsin. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the state has a shortage of more than 120,000 rental units. Owner-occupied housing is in short supply in many communities as well. Like the state, construction of new homes in the county had slowed down significantly after the housing bubble burst in 2008. A direct way to increase the number of quality and affordable housing stock is incentivizing the creation of new multi-family units, which requires loosening zoning regulation. Stabilizing existing neighborhood is also important. This includes provides more funds and loans for replacement housing, and housing rehabilitation.
In Vernon County, the monthly cost of care is ranges from $715 for an infant to $538 for a school age child. To put this cost in perspective, a household with median earnings in Vernon County would need to pay 15% of their earnings on infant care. Childcare availability is also a barrier to employment for Wisconsin families. There is no definitive source for access or availability relative to need. According to the YoungStar provider database, which tracks approximately 82% of providers in the state, there are 11 total providers with a potential capacity of 85 in Vernon County. The county has a much lower capacity when compared to the state. There is one childcare slots for every 100 children under the age of 14 in Vernon County compared to 14 statewide. Additionally, even families that have childcare struggle with childcare disruptions. Easing the cost and access burden would help more parents achieve their full employment potential. Employers could also help improve participation by providing flexibility to parents with childcare responsibilities.