Don’t Jump to Conclusions About the Census

The announcement by the U.S. Census Bureau that the population stood at 308,745,538 on April 1 is a number for which many people have been waiting.

Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho had the fastest growth this decade while slow growth was seen in Rhode Island, Louisiana, Ohio and New York. Michigan was the only state to see a decline.

Most people poring over the 2010 state counts are doing so with an eye to future elections, but it makes sense to proceed cautiously before drawing any hard conclusions about what that data mean in the political context.

Attention is focused on 12 seats in the House of Representatives that will be leaving slow-growth states in the Northeast and Midwest and moving to the South and Southwest as populations there continued to grow quickly.

Census 2010: America grew at slowest rate since the Depression

Texas is the big winner, with four new House seats. Since the states losing seats are usually regarded as blue, tending to elect Democrats, and those gaining seats are normally considered red, tending to elect Republicans, it would be easy to assume Tuesday’s census release is good news for that party and alarming news for Democrats.

It’s not that simple.

If we regard simple population change as an indicator of political power, the buildup in red states is indeed significant. However, early next year, the Census Bureau will release counts of the population by race and ethnicity. That number will show shifts of the population that official estimates have pointed to all along: The diversifying of the population is more extensive in areas of fast population growth.

Many of the states that have gained in their head count have gained non-white minorities, especially Hispanics. Estimates already show that four states that gained seats — Texas, Florida, Arizona and Georgia — are highly ranked in the Top 10 states for growth in the Hispanic population during this decade.

Moreover, more than half the population growth in those states alone came from increases in the Latino population. These additions were a result of net immigration and births in those states. While the large increase in Hispanics in these high-growth states includes some immigrant newcomers ineligible to vote, eligible Latinos tend to vote Democratic in most of the states that gained seats. That may change by 2012, but much will happen between now and then.

Putting this into further perspective, the U.S. population grew by 9.7% between 2000 and 2010, slower than any decade since the Great Depression in the 1930s. With the Great Recession taking hold at the end of the 2000s, slowing immigration and birth rates, it is possible that slower growth will continue, at least for the short term. Thus, the sizeable increase in minority populations comes at a time when the overall population is growing more slowly.

Thus the sweeping demographic changes going on in our nation are much more significant than just shifts in where people live. We are becoming more diverse, and, as many analysts have noted, we will be a white-minority nation in about 30 years. So simply looking at geography may not yield correct results when we’re talking about how new populations may behave and particularly how they may vote.

The excitement that demographers feel about this once-a-decade population snapshot is likely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of political analysts, who are busy discovering what state-level population shifts mean for state reapportionment and redistricting within states.

But as we can see by looking more carefully at the data, there is more to population shifts than a simple rearranging of the map based on total counts.

We’re in for a much more interesting and challenging time than many people may believe.