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Slow-Growing Population? Great!

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The analyses of the new census numbers were predictable, and I take issue with nearly every one. Let's start with the suggestion that population rising at the lowest rate since the Great Depression is to be lamented.  Anything likened to the Great Depression can't be a positive development, right? Wrong.

But this is how USA Today put it: "The U.S. population grew 9.7 percent in the past decade to 308,745,538, according to the first results of the 2010 Census -- the slowest growth since the Great Depression for a nation hard hit by a recession and housing bust."

Nearly 10 percent population growth is slow only in relation to that of Burundi, the African country with the world's lowest per capita gross domestic product. Our population growth rate is comparable to Mexico's, Brazil's and Indonesia's.

For Americans concerned with a loss of open space and thickening congestion, a 10 percent growth rate should seem darn high. If unemployment were 2 percent and houses were selling like Justin Bieber tickets, a sharp hike in population would still be nothing to cheer. By the way, Nevada had the nation's fastest population growth and now the highest unemployment and the worst housing collapse.

As it happens, America had half as many people in 1950. Was America less lovely then? It was certainly more powerful.

Tied to the notion that a population boom equals success is the oft-repeated headline that the census report produced "winners" and "losers." CBS News' Political Hotsheet wrote: "The biggest winner out of the government's decennial population count? It is without a doubt the state of Texas, which will see its House delegation and Electoral College representation increase by four seats."

Well, greater political clout is something any state would welcome, and there's lots of room in Texas. But anyone who drives on Dallas' North Central Expressway at 4 p.m. on a workday knows the meaning of "crowded."  The Lone Star State's big growth has been in the urban corridors, where there's no shortage of company.

Those who declare New York state a "loser" in the census count, meanwhile, may not have visited Rockefeller Center in recent weeks. Yes, the Empire State will have two fewer congressional seats than before, but ask New Yorkers this: How many of you would prefer competing with several million more souls for space to losing some Electoral College votes?

One must note that New York and other "losers" -- Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts -- have actually gained population in the past decade. They just added fewer people than states in the South and West.

The less nuanced commentary treated population gains in so-called Red States and losses in so-called Blue States as an unalloyed blessing for the Republican Party. A GOP advantage, for sure, but limited.

Delivery room doctors in Texas or Arizona don't stamp "Republican" on the cute bottoms of newborns, and the babies are ever likelier to be Latino and part of a group that traditionally votes for Democrats. Until recently, Texas Republicans have been able to corral Latinos into bizarrely shaped districts. But their creativity will be taxed as the state's Hispanics overtake Anglos in number.

Of course, it's nonsense to imply that any state is permanently dyed red or blue. Changing populations change the politics. And changing parties change the politics even where populations are stable. The people's republic of Vermont used to be the most reliably Republican state.

I don't know many Americans, or noncitizen immigrants for that matter, who think that 100 million more people would make the United States a better place. If the U.S. population is slowing, let's celebrate -- and hope it slows some more.

COPYRIGHT 2010 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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