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Census: Population booming in suburbia

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ATLANTA, Ga. -- While nearly 2 million people have flocked to Georgia in the past decade, fewer than 4,000 since 2000 have trickled into the state's capital -- long regarded as the jewel of the New South.

Local Census data released Thursday shows the city of Atlanta grew by less than 1 percent over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, the surrounding counties saw their population growth skyrocket.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the numbers concern him.

"We're going to look at the data," Reed said in a telephone interview.

"We believe that there are probably some challenges, but this is contrary to all the data they've been releasing for the past nine years.

Every statement we've made about the city's population has been informed by the data provided by the U.S. Census Department. We have to figure out whether there is a method for disagreeing with their count."

For years, Atlanta has touted its reputation as a mecca for young professionals, especially educated African-Americans. Harvey Newman, an urban policy expert at Georgia State University who has studied Atlanta demographics for four decades, said he was skeptical of the 2010 count.

"All the evidence was to the contrary," Newman said, adding that some observers estimated the figure would be closer to 500,000. "I suspect an undercount. That would be my guess at this point. I think what we don't know is how many people moved into the city, lost their jobs, and moved out. It's possible that we had larger numbers than that who simply couldn't retain their residency."

The Census' American Community Survey population estimate for the city -- reported in the years between the decennial count -- was more than 515,000 between 2005 and 2009.

The gains outside of metro Atlanta are significantly lower -- what Georgia State University political science professor Steve Anthony called uneven.

"You now almost have three Georgias," he said. "We've still got people in south Georgia, but how do you take care of what's down there if there's no people or tax dollars to take care of it?"

University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel called the report "a mixed bag" for the state.

"Georgia's experiencing a tremendous amount of growth," Bachtel said. "But that growth isn't all roses because those people require infrastructure and somebody's got to pay for that."

Georgia's population swelled to nearly 9.7 million, up from nearly 8.2 million in 2000. The Peach State is now the country's ninth most populous, up from 10th a decade ago. It grew at a rate of 18.3 percent -- outpacing the national growth of 9.7 percent.

The report released Thursday -- which relates to racial data related to redistricting -- shows Forsyth, Carroll and Henry counties leading growth in the metro area, adding 78.4 percent, 74 percent and 70.9 percent, respectively. Gwinnett County added 36.9 percent and Cobb County grew by 13.2 percent. Metro Atlanta's main counties showed more modest growth, with Fulton County adding 12.8 percent and DeKalb County growing by 3.9 percent.

Of Georgia's five largest cities, only Athens showed considerable growth, adding about 15 percent. Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus and Savannah all added less than 4 percent over the last 10 years. Alpharetta, an Atlanta suburb, saw enormous growth, adding 65.1 percent.

Georgia's Hispanic population nearly doubled over the last 10 years -- from 435,227 in 2000 to 865,689 in 2010 -- and now represents just under 9 percent of the state's population. That growth is largely concentrated in metro Atlanta counties, with Gwinnett's Hispanic population jumping from 64,137 to 162,035, or just over 250 percent.

Bachtel said Hispanics have come to Georgia for the same reasons as everyone else, for jobs. Many of the Hispanics who contributed to the recorded growth likely are not new arrivals to the country but rather people whose families have lived elsewhere in the country, perhaps for generations, and who recently moved to Georgia in search of jobs. But he added that he believes the Hispanic population estimate is grossly underestimated, at least in part because Hispanics who are in the country illegally may have shied away from the count.

The state's changing demographics will also factor heavily into the state's politics, particularly with regard to the upcoming redistricting battle. The Census is mandated by the Constitution to determine how to divide the seats in the House among the 50 states, and because of Georgia's growth, the state picked up a seat in the House of Representatives.

The House delegation now numbers 14 members. In 1970, Georgia had 10 congressmen.

Numerically, whites continue to make up the majority of Georgians, at nearly 5.8 million people, or 60 percent of the statewide population -- down from 65 percent in 2000 and a change of nearly 9 percent.

Because the minority populations are concentrated, districts will be overwhelmingly partisan and racially homogenous -- which bodes well for Georgia Republicans, said Anthony.

"There are no swing districts anymore," he said. "Most of the people moving to Georgia are white and they're bringing their voting patterns with them from the North and the Midwest. And those voting patterns are Republican."

More than 600,000 blacks moved to Georgia in the past decade, and African-Americans now total nearly 3 million statewide, or 31 percent of the population. Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP, said blacks have been drawn to the suburbs in recent years for some of the same reasons whites have flocked there.

"There are still challenges that exist, but it is safer," DuBose said. "It could be that times are changing, or African-Americans are saying this is where the economic and educational opportunity is. We're taking advantage of it, too."

Still, DuBose said the black population growth -- a change of nearly 27 percent from 2000 -- could be a mixed blessing.

"This is an opportunity for us to increase the voting population age for African-Americans in Georgia, but there's a danger that goes with this, too," DuBose said. "Georgia also has one of the highest prison populations, so we have to educate people on the challenges of racial profiling."

"All the growth is in north Georgia," Anthony pointed out. "That will have a significant impact on the federal monies that are distributed. It's going to have a huge effect on reapportionment and the balance of power in the General Assembly."