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Shifting populations challenge counties

Do you live in a county that is losing population?

Quite a few counties in the United States are doing just that. It’s easy to assume that because the population of the United States increased from 281,421,906 to 290,788,976 during the period 2000-2003 that not very many counties would be losing population. Indeed, only one state, North Dakota, experienced a population loss. Nevertheless, that is not the case.

Let’s frame the discussion with a short quiz. Again, all data refers to the 2000-2003 period.

(1) How many counties in Mississippi lost population?

(2) What are the 10 fastest-growing counties in the state?

(3) Which 10 counties lost the most population on a percentage basis?

(4) What are the only four states in the United States to have no counties that lost population?

Before giving the answers, let us consider some of the ramifications of a county losing population. The first burden is on local county government. It must decide whether to cut services, raise revenue or become more efficient. If there are fewer people who want the same services as before then those fewer people must pay more in taxes and/or fees.

Another issue is image. What county wants to be on a list of counties losing population? Even if there is a good explanation, it can send a negative message. Growth is an attribute, isn’t it? I assume so in view of the fact that so many counties use “growing” on their Web sites, their marketing materials and their welcome signs. Type “welcome to growing county” in your Internet search engine and you’ll see lots of Web sites for communities that use growth as a positive characteristic.

Another aspect of county population loss relates to the type of citizens who are leaving. If the best and brightest are moving away, then the future of the county is in peril. Quality of life can begin to suffer.

A county losing population is in less of a position for outside investment by the state and federal government. While it is true that low-income counties are eligible for more social assistance, the growing counties receive the investment in infrastructure — especially highways — and other public service projects. Also, because population loss usually results in revenue loss it can more difficult for a county that is losing population to come up with matching funds.

That’s enough discussion. Let’s check out the answers.

(1) Forty-two Mississippi counties lost population during the period. In other words, just over half the counties lost population. Nationally, 13 states had at least 50% of their counties lose population. The highest percentage was found in North Dakota, where 92% of the state’s counties lost population. The second highest percentage was in Nebraska, at 71%. Looking at the states that touch Mississippi, Arkansas had 49% of its counties lose population, Alabama had 64%, Tennessee had 16% and Louisiana had 56%. Please keep in mind that Mississippi and each of its border states had overall population increases. It’s just that the population shifted around inside the states.

(2) The 10 fastest-growing Mississippi counties were:

DeSoto 16.0%

Rankin 8.1%

Tunica 7.5%

Lamar 7.4%

Madison 6.8%

George 6%

Hancock 5.1%

Pearl River 4.7%

Stone 4.3%

Leake 4.2%

(3) The 10 counties that lost the most population, percentage-wise, were:

Tallahatchie -3.4%

Bolivar -3.4%

Coahoma 3.5%

Quitman -3.7%

Leflore -3.9%

Jefferson Davis -4%

Washington -4.2%

Humphreys -4.3%

Sharkey -5.4%

Issaquena -11.3%

(4) The four states that had no counties losing population during the period were:

Connecticut

Delaware

Rhode Island

Vermont

So, what does all this mean? Generally, we are continuing to see a shift in population from rural to urban in Mississippi. Most of the fastest-growing counties are in so-called metropolitan statistical areas, and all of the counties losing population are rural Delta counties.

For an easy-to-read listing of Mississippi population changes from 2000-2003 check out http://www.epodunk.com/top10/countyPop/index.html/.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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