EYE ON THE PIE: Many Hoosier counties losing people

Keywords Government

The phone rang. It was Bella Coase, outraged again. She said, “The Census Bureau’s county population estimates were mistreated by most Hoosier newspapers. They emphasized their counties as if population change were a sporting event.

“They didn’t bother to examine the larger view,” Bella went on. “Only 56 of Indiana’s 92 counties grew in population between 2006 and 2007. Spencer County had no change and the remaining 35 lost population. Doesn’t it trouble you that nearly 40 percent of Hoosier counties had no population increase?”

“Bella,” I said, “you’re probably making too much of data covering just one year. And don’t forget that many of those changes are probably very small.”

“I knew you’d say that,” she said. “So I went back to 1970 to get a running start on the numbers and see the trend. And that is just as disturbing. In 2007, 23 Hoosier counties had fewer residents than in 1970, despite the fact that Indiana added 1.15 million to its population in those years. That was a 22-percent increase for the state, while one-quarter of the state’s counties was losing people.”

“So?” I said.

“So,” Bella echoed, “deeper into the numbers I found that, in addition to the population increase of 1.15 million, we also had a shift in population of 716,000.”

“What’s that mean?” I murmured, pulling up a chair as I recognized a long conversation building.

“Well,” Bella said, probably swelling with importance, “I look at where the added population would have been if it had been distributed among the counties as it was in 1970. For example, Hamilton County had 1.1 percent of Indiana’s 1970 population. That would give Hamilton 12,100 of that 1.15 million added Hoosiers. But Hamilton saw an increase of 203,900. The difference between the expected increase and the actual increase was a shift into Hamilton of 191,900 from other counties. By 2007, Hamilton had 4.1 percent of the state’s total population; that’s an increase of 3.0 percent in the county’s share of the state’s population.

“At the other end of the scale is Lake County,” she went on. “If Lake had grown as fast as the state and thereby achieved its proportional population growth, it would have added 120,900 citizens. Instead, there was a shift outward of 174,800, with a realized decline of 53,900. The county in 1970 had 10.5 percent of the state’s people, but was down to 7.8 percent in 2007.”

“So?” I repeated. “Some counties win, some lose. What’s the big deal?”

“A county can gain population but decrease in its share of the state’s population,” Bella explained. “For example, Marion County gained 83,400 people, instead of 175,600, so its share of the state went from 15.3 percent to 13.8 percent.”

“Fascinating,” I said, yawning.

“You bet it’s fascinating,” Bella blasted. “There are important policy questions here. Where do we build schools, where do we invest in mass transit, where do we provide housing for people? Does Indiana passively accept market-driven, disproportionate population growth or should we adopt policies to encourage more balanced growth?”

“What’s wrong with things as they are?” I asked.

“Many communities are disappearing,” Bella said. “They cannot support the business and government infrastructure needed for civic viability. They decay slowly, denying each succeeding generation a higher quality of life. At the same time, we have to build new communities with all the necessities and amenities of modern life.”

“That is a complicated issue,” I said, trying to back out of the conversation.

“Yes,” Bella said, “but who is talking about it? Does Indiana have any policy for declining or challenged areas? Or are we letting growth take place wherever it will?”

“I’m sure someone is doing something,” I said. “Oops, I think the dog is dining in the cat’s box. I’ll catch you later.”

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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