Two weeks ago Georgia population figures from the 2010 census were released. Broad numbers showing the entire state’s population were released in January, but racial breakdowns and local population figures for counties, communities, and cities weren’t available until mid-March.

State Population Changes:

AREA 2000 2010 GROWTH # GROWTH %
ALABAMA 4,447,100 4,779,736 332,636 7.48%
FLORIDA 15,982,378 18,801,310 2,818,932 17.64%
GEORGIA 8,186,453 9,687,653 1,501,200 18.34%
N. CAROLINA 8,049,313 9,535,483 1,486,170 18.46%
S. CAROLINA 4,012,012 4,625,364 613,352 15.29%
TENNESSEE 5,689,283 6,346,105 656,822 11.54%
SOUTHERN US 100,236,820 114,555,744 14,318,924 14.29%
NATIONAL 281,421,906 308,745,538 27,323,632 9.71%

These numbers show Georgia is no slouch when it comes to growth compared to neighboring states. Only North Carolina grew faster, by a tenth of a percent, and we slightly bested sunny Florida by a half percent. Georgia also lapped the southern quarter of the country in growth, 18% vs 14%, and nearly doubled the growth rate of the US, 18.3% vs 9.7%.

The primary purpose of conducting a national census every ten years is to make sure citizens are equally represented in congress. (Census results also determine a state’s electoral votes and play a role in the way federal road and project money is allocated.) All Georgia’s growing earns the state a new seat in the US House of Representatives even as many northern states lose a seat or two because of their stagnating growth. (One midwestern state, Michigan, actually lost 54,000 people during the ten years and will be stripped of one congressman before 2012 elections.)

Where that new US House district will be isn’t yet known; that’s a decision to be made by the Georgia General Assembly in April after its regular session ends. Many expect legislators to carve out a new district in Northwest Georgia, halving Tom Graves’ 9th, which currently stretches all across the top of the state. If that happens, Jeff Mullis (R-Useless) will probably give up his seat in the Georgia Senate and take a run for the US House with hundreds of thousands of dollars in banked campaign contributions.

The state legislature will also be adjusting state senate and house districts. That could lead to Chattooga or Catoosa counties being removed from the 53rd Senate District Jeff Mullis claims to represent, helping his eventual replacement focus more on needs of Walker and Dade residents. Other state district changes will strengthen the political position of North Georgia residents since northern counties have seen the most growth while many south Georgia counties spent the last decade shrinking and metro Atlanta actually lost 120,000 people. Several counties in the state’s lower third have less than 10,000 residents and some, like Quitman, Clay, and Baker, have fewer residents than the city of LaFayette.

To ensure equal representation for minorities, any changes made to Georgia’s US House or state legislative districts will have to be approved by the Department of Justice in Washington DC. Only formerly-segregated southern states are subjected to this level of scrutiny, as the federal government regards us as toothless hillbillies who cannot be trusted to make our decisions else we go crazy and start randomly lynching people. Maintaining fair representation for all races is one reason why census forms include questions about racial identity, but the questions themselves are sometimes racist (the term “negro” was included on last year’s questionnaire) and we know of more than one person who checked the wrong box on purpose.

In the 21st century there’s no need for race information to be included on the census or factored into redistricting plans. It seems most southerners (and Americans in general) have moved beyond the racial problems of the past, so hopefully by 2020 the Census Bureau will move beyond having those questions on its forms. Even if that doesn’t happen, southern states should be freed from having their redistricting decisions monitored by the fed – how many more decades will we be punished for the sins of the past? (Race data is readily available online, but we’re not including it here because it’s irrelevant to discussions of forward progress.)

County Population Changes:

AREA 2000 2010 GROWTH # GROWTH %
CATOOSA COUNTY 53,282 63,942 10,660 20.01%
CHATTOOGA CO. 25,470 26,015 545 2.14%
DADE COUNTY 15,154 16,633 1,479 9.76%
HAMILTON CO. TN 307,896 336,463 28,567 19.28%
WALKER COUNTY 61,053 68,756 7,703 12.62%
WHITFIELD COUNTY 83,525 102,599 19,074 22.84%
ALL GEORGIA 8,186,453 9,687,653 1,501,200 18.34%

Walker County grew 12.6%, about 2/3 the rate of growth for all Georgia. We grew population faster than Dade and Chattooga counties, but were greatly outpaced by neighboring Catoosa, Whitfield, and Hamilton. If nothing else this shows the value of having a major interstate running through a region: areas growing more than the state average have direct access to I-75 and the relative economic strength it provides. I-59 runs through Dade but that’s hardly a “major” interstate; it has minimal traffic and Georgia DOT doesn’t claim or maintain it anymore. But without that interstate Dade’s numbers would likely resemble those in economically-floundering Chattooga.

All this county level growth should lead people to question why Walker County still has a single-commissioner form of government. Of all our neighbors, only Chattooga County is still structured the same way – and Chattooga doesn’t even have half the people Walker does. Georgia is the only state out of fifty that still permits sole-commissioner governments, and only eight counties in Georgia employ that system. Of those eight only two, Walker and Bartow, have more than 40,000 residents. Sole commissioner counties might have been fine in the 1800’s when some counties didn’t have enough residents to form a baseball team, but in this day there’s no good reason for 70- or 100-thousand people to be “represented” by one person at the county level. That’s something that needs to be addressed in the state legislature.

Census County Division Population Changes:

CHATT. VALLEY CCD 10,469 10,401 -68 -.65%
CHICKAMAUGA CCD 12,419 15,064 2,645 21.30%
FAIRYLAND CCD 2,920 3,043* 123 4.21%
KENSINGTON CCD 3,015 3,264 249 8.26%
LAFAYETTE CCD 15,465 17,451 1,986 12.84%
ROCK SPRING CCD 4,553 6,548 1,995 43.82%
ROSSVILLE CCD 10,282 10,798 516 5.02%
VILLANOW CCD 1,930 2,187 257 13.32%
WALKER COUNTY 61,053 68,756 7,703 12.62%

*2010 Fairyland figures calculated from county population, CCD omitted from available data.

In order to consistently measure every part of a county, even unincorporated areas, the Census Bureau divides each into zones called Census County Divisions. Some CCD’s are named after included cities, like LaFayette or Rossville, but they aren’t limited to just the population living within those city limits. CCD territories don’t change between censuses so they’re stable for statistical purposes, more so than cities that can expand their boundaries through annexation and make comparison difficult. Walker County’s CCD’s primarily follow ZIP code maps, except for Villanow and Kensington which are respectively broken off from LaFayette and Chickamauga. CCD’s are used for school planning purposes and often impact boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts.

Comparing these figures to the incorporated city numbers (which we’ll get to next), it’s clear (with a few exceptions) that rural areas of the county are growing much faster than the cities. Rock Spring CCD has been absolutely on fire growth-wise in the last ten years, gaining nearly 44% more residents. Some of that stems from being near Ringgold, some comes from general growth along Highway 27, and some comes from the county government’s focus on development along that corridor. Even with the added population Rock Spring is 4th smallest out of eight districts, but these these growth numbers will likely exacerbate the problem of government over-focus on the Rock Spring area. Chickamauga was the second-fastest growing CCD, followed by rural Villanow and LaFayette. Chattanooga Valley CCD (primarily the Flintstone area) actually shrank slightly during the decade.

Incorporated City Population Changes:

CHICKAMAUGA 2,245 3,101 856 38.13%
FORT OGLETHORPE 6,940 9,263 2,323 33.47%
LAFAYETTE 6,702 7,121 419 6.25%
LOOKOUT MTN 1,617 1,602 -15 -.93%
MENLO 485 474 -11 -2.27%
ROSSVILLE 3,511 4,105 594 16.92%
TRENTON 1,942 2,301 359 18.47%
TRION 1,993 1,827 -166 -8.33%

Walker County’s fastest growing city was Chickamauga. A net gain of 857 residents means growth in excess of 38%, twice the growth rate of Rossville and five times more growth than in LaFayette. Chickamauga also bested Fort Oglethorpe, despite having no interstate access and few industries. The city of Lookout Mountain, with barely enough residents to even qualify as a city, shrank slightly during the decade.

LaFayette gained population between 2000 and 2010, but those gains were, at best, adequate. LaFayette’s growth rate was only half the rate of Walker County as a whole, and was third out of the county’s four municipalities. LaFayette fared much better than its southern neighbors in Chattooga county, but even compared to them this level of growth isn’t very impressive.

Incorporated LaFayette also grew slower than the LaFayette CCD, indicating that many more people want to live near the Queen City than actually inside it. That could be because of accessible real estate, individual preferences, or because an increasing number of LaFayette neighborhoods aren’t appealing or livable. Obviously the City of Chickamauga, with its 38% growth, isn’t facing some of the same issues as LaFayette with 6%. Residents voted with their feet: Chickamauga (for all its faults), is a lot nicer place to live than LaFayette.

Much of LaFayette’s 6-1/4 percent growth is natural, from childbirth, not from new residents moving into the area. A small bit of that expansion also comes from the incorporated city covering more area than it did ten years ago; properties on the north side of town were annexed into city limits shortly after Walmart opened in October 2000.

There are additionally some questions and controversy about Census Bureau methods; the agency uses “imputation” (a fancy word for educated guessing) to fill in gaps of people who don’t respond to census questions and for houses where the number of occupants isn’t known. In LaFayette 72% of the presumed population responded to census forms by mail, the remainder were tracked down door to door or simply guessed at.

Back in January we predicted LaFayette would show no significant growth and possibly even a declining population. Obviously that prediction was wrong, there’s been some growth in the city, but just from driving around town you can see why we expected a decline. Burned out houses, empty homes with broken out windows, widespread job losses, and for-sale signs in front of many buildings aren’t exactly signs of a healthy, growing city.

LaFayette Housing Changes:

  2000 2010 GROWTH # GROWTH %
RESIDENTS 6,702 7,121 419 6.25%
HOMES 2,926 3,258 332 11.35%
EMPTY HOMES 205 432 227 110.73%
PERCENT EMPTY HOMES 7% 13.3% 6.3% 90%

Between 2000 and 2010 LaFayette gained a net of 332 homes. (That’s not necessarily the number of new homes constructed, as the community also lost quite a few due to arson fires or demolition, and some of the added homes are within the territory annexed in.) That’s one new house for every 1.26 new residents, meaning LaFayette (like many other places) overbuilt during the 2000’s. Because of all that building the percentage of empty homes more than doubled during the same time period – and judging by the number of for-sale signs in town, we’d have many more empty houses if all the people who want to leave actually could. City government agencies in LaFayette and elsewhere need to stop approving new home permits and subdivision construction until the economy improves else this trend will only worsen in upcoming years.

We’ve observed an increasing number of families moving in with relatives or combining households, raising the number of people who live in each occupied house even as the number of unoccupied homes soared. That’s an indicator that housing costs have stayed the same even while basic survival expenses (food, fuel, electricity) have gone up and many people’s incomes have dropped or gone away entirely. That’s another situation likely to only get worse unless there’s a drastic change in what’s being charged to buy or rent a home inside the city limits.

Family Poverty Changes:

LAFAYETTE ALL 1,307 (20.9%) 2,089 (26.9%) 782 59.83%
LAFAYETTE UNDER 18 529 (33.9%) 861 (41.1%) 332 62.76%
WALKER ALL 7,466 (12.5%) 9,459 (19.7%) 1,993 26.69%
WALKER UNDER 18 2,616 (17.6%) 2,918 (19.5%) 302 11.54%
GEORGIA ALL 1,033,793 (13%) 1,384,518 (15%) 350,725 33.93%
GEORGIA UNDER 18 365,406 (17.1%) 502,268 (20.3% 136,862 37.45%

This makes the change in income all too clear. The number of people living in poverty within the city of LaFayette more than doubled between 1999 and 2009. That means one out of four people living in town doesn’t make enough money to cover basic expenses, and a disproportionate number of those people are under eighteen years old. LaFayette’s poverty numbers are rising faster than the population in general, faster than the rate of poverty for the rest of Walker County, and faster than the rate of poverty for all of Georgia.

Lost jobs, rising costs, and dying neighborhoods have led to a mass exodus of educated, capable middle-class residents. As a result LaFayette is increasingly divided between those poorer families that cannot afford to leave and the FiSDOPs who don’t have a reason to go anywhere else. Losing so many middle-class families means that when the regional economy does begin to improve (if it ever does), new employers will be less willing to move into LaFayette because the workforce available won’t be as desirable as workers elsewhere. We aren’t completely there yet, but the city will reach that point soon if something doesn’t change.

While LaFayette may be showing population growth, the faster growth of poverty and glut of unoccupied houses show significant rot right beneath the surface. Much of that damage will be permanent without new direction for the city, both economically and socially – but that change won’t happen without new thinking and leaders with a real vision for the community. Obviously doing things the way they’ve always been done isn’t enough; now we must not only strive to be “adequate” but seek to excel, to stand out, and be a community that can appeal to businesses and to the middle class, educated, working people that those businesses need.

Data Sources: Georgia Statistics, US Census FactFinder, US Census FactFinder2.

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  1. I worked the Census in 2010. I was an Assistant Manager for this zone, so I saw pretty much every form that came through the LaFayette-Rock Spring-Chickamauga area. Our group had one of the highest completion rates of any zone in our region (which was Dalton-Rossville), so we probably have pretty accurate numbers. My group (seven enumerators) never had to guess on a form, though I did have to do some pretty serious detective work for one, apparently violent, family in Chickamauga that we were warned about. Also, let me brag for a second: I only had one person slam a door in my face and only heard of one gun being brandished! Good job, Walker County! You’re not (quite) as crazy as everybody says!