News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

February 13, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Community effort needed to reverse trend in under-18 population

TERRE HAUTE — Vigo County needs an exodus czar.

Not the biblical Exodus. Instead, this exodus (lower-case e) refers to the departure of young people from this community, as revealed in the newly released 2010 Census figures. An independent czar — and who wouldn’t want that title? — could study the problem, develop a strategy and coordinate its execution with city and county officials as well as economic development and business leaders. That person could be a retired college prof or CEO. Teams of students from the five local colleges could assist in the research. With so many energetic, progressive organizations here — from the campuses to civic groups, Terre Haute Ministries and others — the community could mount a full-scale attack on a trend threatening its future.

In the past decade, many families have left the county to live elsewhere.

The numbers, closely analyzed, reveal the frustrating reality.

At first glance, the Census Bureau statistics look pretty good. Vigo County’s population grew 1.9 percent to 107,848 in the 2010 count, up from 105,848 in 2000. Likewise, Terre Haute’s population jumped by 2 percent to 60,785 in the latest census, compared to 59,614 in 2000.

But those increases contain an asterisk. Most of the growth can be attributed to the expansion of the Federal Correctional Complex and the additional inmates it now houses. (In the census, federal prison inmates count as residents of the community where they’re incarcerated.) In 2000, the local penitentiary held 1,764 prisoners at maximum- and minimum-security structures. A third facility was added in 2004. Thus, by Census Day 2010, Terre Haute’s federal inmate population had grown to 3,251, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons statistics gathered by Peter Wagner of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative.

So, the non-federal-inmate population of Vigo County rose only slightly (from 103,915 free residents to 104,597) from 2000 to 2010.

And, the non-federal-inmate population of Terre Haute (the prison is within the city limits) dropped in the past decade, from 57,850 to 57,534.

The extra inmates also show up in the most troubling stats in the community’s preliminary census profile. (The Census Bureau will release more detailed information this spring and summer.) The number of Vigo County residents 18 years of age and older climbed by 3,167 people (or 3.9 percent) between 2000 and 2010. Terre Haute’s over-18 crowd grew by 1,757 people (which would include the additional 1,487 federal prisoners).

By contrast, the county’s under-18 population decreased by 1,167 youths (or 4.8 percent) from 2000 to 2010. The city’s kid total dropped by 586 in the same timespan.

Last fall, the Vigo County School Corp. announced that its enrollment had dropped by 208 students from the previous year. In 2007-08, the district had 16,184 students in grades K-12; in 2008-09, it was 16,041; in 2010-11, it’s fallen to 15,780. The corporation usually receives between $5,000 and $6,000 per student in state funding, so resources dwindle. Those vacant desks and chairs and lockers also represent the lost talents and potential contributions of the students and their families.

Birth and death rates apparently aren’t to blame. Baby announcements outnumbered funerals by 212 in 2008, and by 400 the year before, according to the Indiana Business Research Center.

The primary culprit — plant closings throughout the decade, especially recession-era shutdowns such as Pfizer.

“It’s very likely that, with the loss of jobs, the area around Terre Haute lost families or people of family-formation ages,” said Carol Rogers, deputy director of the IBRC.

“They had to go elsewhere to look for work,” Rogers speculated.

The community isn’t alone. Sixty-nine of Indiana’s 92 counties lost population in the under-18 age group, said Matt Kinghorn, demographer for the IBRC. Some counties experienced far worse, double-digit percentage drops, including Posey, Blackford, Newton, Grant and Delaware. Relative to those places, Vigo County has fared decently. Kid populations shrank in neighboring Clay and Vermillion counties by 7.1 and 6.2 percent, respectively.

Hot spots around the state, though, saw growth in their school-age population. Those included “the usual suspects,” as Kinghorn put it — Hamilton, Hendricks and Hancock counties in the affluent Indianapolis suburbs — but also Tippecanoe County (home of Purdue University), Monroe County (home of Indiana University) and the suburbs of Louisville, Ky., and Evansville. (Statewide, the under-18 population rose 2.2 percent.)

How can Vigo County join that hot spot list? Well, there’s the natural way, which puts a lot pressure on young couples to up their family sizes to three or four kids. “In most places in Indiana, we’re not seeing that kind of reproduction,” Rogers said.

The other option is to focus on being a hub for jobs (which the mayor, county commissioners and economic development folks already are busy doing), and on being a family-friendly community and trying to attract young people, Rogers added. An exodus czar (or “growth czar” if that sounds more positive) and a coalition of students, volunteers and churches could help local officials with the latter task.

The czar would decide what Vigo County needs (along with the obvious, jobs) to recruit young families to come here, and how to keep more graduates of Indiana State University, Rose-Hulman and St. Mary-of-the-Woods. Then, by the 2020 Census, the exodus czar can retire — preferably here in Terre Haute, not Florida or Arizona.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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