In a grow-slow time, worrisome signs that Georgia is slipping

By Tom Baxter

Every year, harried editors, hungry from the holiday drought, get a gift from the U.S. Census Bureau: the annual report on how and where the nation’s population is growing. The report’s always good for local breakouts on how your state stacks up against the rest. But this year, the big news from the report was how little news it made.

Newspapers in Florida were all teed up to report that state had pulled past New York to become the nation’s third-largest state. Eventually it will, but not this year. It was the same non-story in North Carolina, which was poised to move ahead of Michigan into the ninth-largest position. The Tar Heel State pulled closer, but Michigan grew enough to stay ahead.

The great demographic trend of our lifetimes — the shift in population toward the west and south — continues, but the surge has grown sluggish as the economy has slowed. Jobs account for most of the movement between states, and as the jobs have gone, so has the movement. Baby production follows a similar pattern.

“Economists think the recession is over, but it’s not, for demographic trends,” demographer Ken Johnson told the Washington Post.

For Georgia, there’s even less to hang a headline on. Its 0.8-percent growth over the past year  — about the same as Oregon — keeps it among the growth states, but it has the weakest growth rate of any of the states from Virginia to Florida. Georgia’s still growing faster than Tennessee or Alabama, but it used to be growing faster than that.

This has troubling consequences. Georgia added a 14th Congressional seat in the last reapportionment, but a Real Clear Politics analysis of the trendlines projects that the state won’t pick up another congressional seat through the 2040 census. Over that period Florida is projected to gain three seats, with North Carolina and Virginia picking up one each. Texas, over the three census cycles, is projected to be the national leader with a pickup of seven seats.

The contrast with Florida is particularly interesting. Florida barely missed losing a seat after the 2010 census, when Georgia gained one, but over the next three decades it is on track to fully regain its advantage. If Georgia seemed to be gaining on Florida at the beginning of the decade, it was more due to the depth of Florida’s economic woes than the strength of our own economy.

Across South Georgia you hear of a lot of people who’ve lived their working life in Florida retiring and moving back to Georgia. But it’s a wash: we send them about as many people as they send us, and it continues to attract much more population from other states than we do. There’s a neat interactive chart on the Vizynary site that gives a very useful way to understand the migration flows between states. (Note that it’s based on last year’s data, and requires strong mouse skills.)

A decade or so ago, you could expect a handful of Metro counties to be among the nation’s fastest growing. It would have been hard to believe that today the fastest-growing counties are probably in North Dakota. But that’s the big story. The southwesterly trend has slowed, while the shale oil boom has made North Dakota the nation’s employment magnet.

Of course, it has a lot of room to grow. The fact that the sparsely populated state’s 3.1-percent growth rate nearly doubles that of any other illustrates the generally moderate demographic dynamics of the rest of the country.

Some analysts have suggested that the evidence of the past few years points to a long cycle in which the economy, the population and the political map all change more slowly than we have been accustomed throughout decades of tumultuous change.

Perhaps so, but it’s disquieting to superimpose the projected growth map over some of the projections about the effects of climate change. Whatever extrapolations we may be able to make from what we know so far, the middle of this century still looms as an ominous question mark. What we can say for sure is that Georgia, in kind with the nation, is currently running in neutral.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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