Political power migrates with the population: 2010 Census will change who rules

CensusBy now, you know the numbers statisticians and economists most often use to paint the picture of the Great Recession: unemployment percentages, jobs lost and created, and gross national product among them. Now, add to that another crucial though less obvious number: shifts in U.S. population growth.

While that might sound like a variable regardless of the economy, a recent New York Times story by reporter Damien Cave reveals that the recession has caused some dramatic demographic shifts. The evidence lies in new U.S. Census Bureau figures culled between July 2008 and July 2009, with the trends expected to take more solid form as we head into the 2010 Census year.

States such as Nevada, which grew sharply in population during the real estate boom earlier in the decade, are now seeing a reversal, with more Americans moving out than in, census figures show. And in Michigan, where rust-belt economics have crippled the auto industry, more population was lost (down about 1/3 of a percentage point) than anywhere else in the nation.

Now for a moment, imagine the Joad family leaving their Oklahoma Dust Bowl farm in "The Grapes of Wrath" and you'll have an idea how the recession could reshape our population patterns -- and thus which states have more power in Congress -- when the official Census tally gets published a year from now.

"We are focused now on ensuring we get a complete and accurate count in [December] 2010," said Census Bureau Director Robert Groves. "The census counts will not only determine how many U.S. House seats each state will have but will also be used as the benchmark for future population estimates."

To that end, Texas appears the big winner so far. It showed the biggest upward population shift during 2008-2009, with nearly 500,000 people coming to a state that has experienced tech sector growth and financial gains from high oil prices. The Times reports that politicians there are already haggling over how the state will be redistricted. If you'll recall, Texas -- with a big push from former Congressman Tom DeLay -- underwent a controversial redistricting in 2003 that sought to tip the balance of power in favor of Republicans.

The Times story reveals that much of the growth has been in conservative suburban districts around Dallas and Houston, though political scientists believe many of the newcomers will lean liberal. And that could lead to a political dogfight: Republicans only gained control of the Texas legislature in 2002, the first time in more than 100 years.

States that emerge with more representatives will undoubtedly have a better shot at federally controlled resources, from stimulus funds to those proverbial pork barrel projects. If the population shifts hold, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington could each add one seat; 17 states would be subject to redistricting. Among them is Wyoming, which showed the largest percentage growth. Its population climbed more than 2 percent to 544,270 (still less than Baltimore's population of 786,000).

Does this mean certain opportunities await you in different parts of the country? Remember that if you're a middle-class homeowner, the depressed real estate market means that if you want to move, you'll either have to take a big hit on selling your house, or rent it out until prices recover. (Remember that the Joad family lost everything before they pushed on to California.)

Then again, sitting tight and riding things out, difficult as that may seem, could also reap benefits, depending on where you live. With fewer people able to move, Northeastern states such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have held on to more residents. Chances are those populations will still be around once things turn the corner for good, and they'll need the goods and services of a reinvigorated economy.
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