News from the Indiana Business Research Center last week seemed heartening: The state’s four biggest cities are growing fast.
Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Evansville and South Bend all showed dramatic population increases over the past three years. The biggest boom was in the state’s capital, which added 7,000 residents to reach a total population of more than 843,000.
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau – analyzed by Business Research Center demographer Matt Kinghorn at Indiana University – shows a spillover in “doughnut” counties around the big cities. Affluent suburbs of Fishers, Carmel and Noblesville all saw numbers swell, as well.
The data were heartening for a state that saw six worrisome years of dwindling growth in the wake of the Great Recession. In just the past year, Indiana added more than 33,120 new Hoosiers to grow its population to 6.57 million
That’s important, Kinghorn said, because population growth signals an improving economy.
“Here in Indiana, population change goes hand in hand with our economic fortunes,” he said. “So, when the economy is going well, we tend to draw more residents to the state. And, when the economy is slumping, then our population figures slump, as well.”
Sweetening the scenario, Indiana’s population growth has outpaced that of neighboring states.
But Kinghorn, who describes his job “as swimming in the numbers,” sees more than rosy results.
“When you zoom in and look at different parts of the state, you see there are a lot of divergent trends,” he said. “You can really see the role the economy plays.”
As the four big cities do well, plenty of communities are seeing their populations slip. Five of the six cities losing the most residents are in the industrial corner of the state – in Lake County.
Hammond, Gary and Hobart have been in decline numbers-wise for more than a decade, and the trend is only quickening.
Small factory cities and rural towns suffer the same fate. In Anderson, a community less than an hour’s drive from Indianapolis, workers who left after automobile parts suppliers closed during the recession haven’t come back.
And, while the past three years have been good for some communities, 49 of Indiana’s 92 counties have lost population. By contrast, from 2000 to 2010, only one-third of the state’s counties lost population.
Those losses are especially problematic, said Kinghorn, because they’re weighted by people in their child-bearing years.
“When you see cities and towns decline in numbers, it starts with young adults and young families,” he said. “They move, then the children they have or will have are lost to that community, too. So the loss just compounds itself.”
Communities with sustained losses face an uphill battle.
“They’re asking, ‘How do we attract employers, and how do we attract new residents when we’ve been losing population for 5 and 10 and 15 years?’ That’s not a question easy to answer,” he said.
But there is an easy answer – good-paying jobs.
“People need to be able to see there’s a future for them where they live,” Kinghorn said.
Population numbers are important for many reasons, not the least of which is money. The numbers drive the allocation of more than $400 billion per year in federal and state dollars. That money is divvied to communities for roads and schools and a range of projects.
So, while there’s good news from the data — the last time we saw the slump in growth that we’re now overcoming was back in the 1980s — a drain of residents from small communities can’t be ignored. When people leave, taking their productive labor with them, their absence threatens the long-term prospects of those places they’ve left behind
“Without them,” Kinghorn said, “you can’t have a thriving economy.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.