Eye on the Pie and Opinion

MARCUS: Fewer Hoosier children means less retail

March 12, 2011

We were prepared for Indiana’s mediocre results from the 2010 census. Our population growth (6.6 percent) over the decade 2000 to 2010 ranked 31st in the nation. We could celebrate being not too far from the top of the bottom half of the states.

What brought joy to the Hoosier hearth was the news that we topped Wisconsin’s 6.0-percent growth, Illinois’ 3.3, Ohio’s 1.6, and pitiful Michigan’s decline (-0.6 percent). Doing better than one’s poor neighbors stands as a weak triumph.

If anything rattled our teeth, it was the concentration of growth in Marion and four adjacent counties (Hamilton, Hendricks, Johnson and Hancock). These five counties alone captured more than 53 percent of the state’s growth. Of the remaining 87 counties, 29 lost population. The biggest losers in number of people were Grant (Marion), Howard (Kokomo), Wayne (Richmond), Wabash (Wabash) and Cass (Logansport) counties. Blackford County (Hartford City), at -9.1 percent, had the largest decline relative to the state.

Relative growth (or decline) does matter. What’s good for the Indianapolis metropolitan area is now better than before for all of Indiana. As the Indianapolis metro area approaches 26 percent of the state’s population, who is losing out? Even though Lake County gained 11,400 people and Vanderburgh gained 7,800, neither kept pace with the state’s growth rate. These two counties, along with Madison, Delaware, LaPorte and Vigo, emerged from the last decade as relative losers in the population derby.

After the Legislature completes redistricting next month, more members of the Indiana General Assembly than before will have the Indianapolis area on their minds. When the state allocates goodies according to population, the outlands will get a lesser share. Business activity, particularly health and financial services, will concentrate still more where people are most numerous.

Hidden in all these data lies a truth that may be of great significance. From 2000 to 2010, the adult population of the state grew faster (8.2 percent) than the population under age 18 (2.2 percent). Indiana added 369,400 adults, compared with just 33,900 children, a ratio of nearly 11 to 1. This imbalance was hardly uniform, but its consequences are important for all of us.

When more data are released, we’ll know the full story, but we can already identify important patterns. In only 24 of our 92 counties did both the adult and child populations increase. For example, Clark County added 13,000 people, of whom 11,000 were adults and just 2,000 were children. In 68 counties, however, the number of children declined.

Children, as any parent will attest, are the drivers of our economy. They cause the washing machine and dryer to be bought. They necessitate the larger, safer automobile. Simply put, children are the creators of debt and increased consumption spending.

Fewer children reduce retail trade. Schools acquire empty rooms and playgrounds see less Little League ball played. Neighbors are less inclined to know one another in the absence of children. Communities, as we have known them, change. Some crumble, others manage an awkward transformation to residential areas with limited liveliness.

The economic prospects of communities with fewer children are poor. Where youth initiates change, adults often succumb to the temptations of the familiar. It is difficult to convince town elders that more opportunities for social engagement are necessary to sustain commercial vitality. Carmel, with its new theaters and concert facilities, may be the best example in Indiana of a smaller city’s becoming a place for adults.•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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