This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
In 2009, 14 Georgia counties ranked in the top 100 fastest growing counties in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2015, that list had dwindled to include just eight Georgia counties. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Great Recession, which began in 2007, has fundamentally altered the growth pattern of Georgia.
While Georgia continues to be one of the fastest growing states in the country, this growth is becoming increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer counties that are largely urban. Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and Forsyth counties account for over 50 percent of the entire population growth of Georgia since 2010. Seven counties now account for two-thirds of all population growth in Georgia since the 2010 Census: Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Forsyth, Cherokee and Chatham counties—all but one in metro Atlanta. The sum of all population growth for both urban and rural Georgia since the 2010 Census now stands at more than a 500,000-person increase for urban Georgia and over a 5,000-person decrease for rural Georgia. This is in stark contrast to the 1990s when rural Georgia grew by nearly 225,000 and the 2000s when the area grew by over 170,000 people.
A drive through parts of rural Georgia provides a glimpse into the proud history of strong commercial centers with picturesque downtowns, manicured squares and beautiful courthouses. The historical character and vibrancy of our rural cities has largely been sustained even as populations have dwindled in many areas. Between 2010 and 2015 though, nearly half of Georgia’s counties saw some form of population decline; and for many of our rural communities, population decline is not a new phenomenon. Thirty-seven of the 85 rural counties in Georgia had larger populations in the 1920 Census than in the 2010 Census. Eleven counties in Georgia had larger populations in the 1860 Census than in the 2010 Census.
There are only three possible ways that a population can ever change: people are added through births, people are subtracted through deaths, and in between birth and death people move around or migrate. Since 2010, almost 100 Georgia counties have more people moving out of them than moving in. Between Census 1980 and Census 2010, over 50 percent of all population growth in Georgia was due to more people moving into the state than moving out. However, in the midst of the Great Recession, most of Georgia’s growth is coming from births—a pattern the state hasn’t seen in almost 50 years.
With little to no growth from migration, natural increase (or the births minus the deaths) becomes the major source of growth; and in some counties, it is the only source of population growth. But 27 counties in Georgia are seeing both negative net migration and negative natural increase, a demographic double-whammy of population decline. These demographic shifts represent significant headwinds and challenges in many of our rural and exurban areas in Georgia.
These demographic trends are not unique to Georgia but are present in communities across the entire United States. Many of our other southern states are also seeing increasing migration into urban areas. How cities address this change can ensure they remain the engine of growth in Georgia and across the country. Understanding the demographic changes in our cities is foundational for this planning for our future.
As Georgia and its growing population continue to lead the South and the nation as an economic and cultural pillar, ensuring its place relies on an accurate Census 2020 count. Planning for the 2020 Decennial Census is already well underway. The Census is used to distribute over $400 billion in federal funds, so getting an accurate count is essential for federal assistance in many communities. Local governments can participate in the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) to ensure their communities are properly counted. Georgia also has the possibility of adding a congressional seat after the 2020 redistricting, so getting the right count is vitally important to Georgia and its representation on the national stage.
Matt Hauer leads the Applied Demography Program at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia where he helps public officials make data driven decisions and understand their local demographics.