Government & Politics

Overlooked population metric key to analyzing state’s performance

Hurricane Katrina hurt Louisiana, says ex-Gov. Roemer, but “Louisiana was already hurting.” The reasons why are complex. A solution begins with dedicated trust funds for the state’s colleges and universities. photo: NASA

It’s surprisingly difficult to measure how a state is “doing.” Politicians do a lot of bragging about what they’ve accomplished but tend to be imprecise when it comes to real measurements.

You could look at the mean or median personal income for a family of four, for instance. Or state domestic product. But each of these metrics is subject to interpretation and skewing.

I suggest we look at population growth. The U.S. Census data is reasonably accurate and it’s updated every 10 years, so big-picture trends can be spotted reliably. Think of it as a kind of election return. People vote with their feet. They leave a state with no jobs and head to a state with “good” jobs—or any job at all.

The BP oil explosion was another setback, though not as severe as the price crash of the 1980s. Oil and gas revenues are also the state’s greatest natural resource. file photo

States can lose population as a result of some traumatic event—oil spill, hurricane. So short-term numbers are not that meaningful. Long-term, however, they mean a lot.

They tell you whether a state is magnetic, a place where people see opportunity or at least a fair shake, or whether they see corruption, a poor economy, an unhealthy environment, bad schools and the like.

How does Louisiana do on the population scale?

Let’s look at the numbers from 1970 to 2010. That takes us back even before the oil crash of the mid-1980s. And let’s compare them with our neighboring States: Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Just for good measure, let’s add Alabama—because it’s similar to Louisiana and Mississippi. Let’s also throw in both Carolinas, because we compete with them for new plants and industries:

Here’s how these states rank in terms of population growth since 1970:

1. TEXAS  grew from 11.2 to 25.1 million—124 percent.

2. NORTH CAROLINA grew from 5.1 to 9.5 million—86 percent.

3. SOUTH CAROLINA grew from 2.5 to 4.6 million—84 percent.

4. ARKANSAS grew from 1.9 to 2.9 million—53 percent.

5. OKLAHOMA grew from 2.6 to 3.75 million—44 percent.

6. ALABAMA grew from 3.45  to 4.8 million—39 percent.

7. MISSISSIPPI grew from 2.2 to 2.97 million—35 percent.

And dead last?

8. LOUISIANA, which grew from 3.65 to 4.5 million, a paltry 23 percent.

Shown these statistics, some people are quick to blame the oil collapse of 30-years ago. (But then why didn’t it impact Texas just as badly? Was it because they had protected their major universities with trusts funded with oil and gas revenues and could better weather the storm?)

All right then, what about Katrina? That might be a good rebuttal, I thought, so I compared the states’ growth without Katrina, cutting off at the 2000 census, five years before the disaster.

Guess what? Louisiana ranks dead last again. Here are population increases through 2000:

1. TEXAS: 86 percent

2. SOUTH CAROLINA: 60 percent

3. NORTH CAROLINA: 57 percent

4. ARKANSAS: 42 percent

5. OKLAHOMA: 33 percent

6. ALABAMA: 28 percent

7. MISSISSIPPI: 27 percent

8. LOUISIANA: 23 percent

In other words, Katrina hurt, but Louisiana was already hurting.

I picked seven states to compare but could have added Tennessee and/or Virginia and/or Florida—and Louisiana still would have ranked dead last.

You want to measure the power of population another way? Look at the size of Louisiana’s Congressional delegation, a number determined in part by population growth. Each state has one delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, with others added (or subtracted) when that state grows (or shrinks) faster than or proportional to other states.

In 1970, Louisiana sent eight delegates to the House of Representatives. Now we send six, a 25 percent cut in our Washington power because we cannot sustain growth as well as our competition – the other states.

Is there a way to turn this dismal situation around? Sure there is. One word: education. Governor Jindal is right to have put a priority on that. But let’s go all the way. Because there’s more to it than rethinking elementary and secondary education, more to it than vouchers and charter schools.

Tax and pension reform—which the governor also is working on—will have a direct impact on education, given the way teachers dominate the public payroll and schools dominate our public budgets.

But there’s a final piece of the education puzzle, an unexpected one. Chalk and blackboards? Computers and ink cartridges? No: It’s natural gas.

The state’s most valuable natural resource gives us a second chance to correct one of our biggest shortcomings as a state: the absence of adequately funded trusts dedicated exclusively to higher education.

Locking down a sufficient revenue stream from gas extraction would make it possible to put our state colleges and universities on a firmer footing. It would end their vulnerability to games of political football. It would provide an alternative to gutting their budgets every time the economy hiccups.

As Texas —and indeed many of the states we trail in population growth—clearly demonstrates, higher education is a linchpin in building a more dynamic state. Great universities attract business investment. They retain and sustain an educated populace able to step into higher-paying jobs. Dedicated trusts are crucial to the well-being of public universities.

I’m not saying we should follow Governor Jindal blindly, but I am suggesting we can and should help him reform and build a stronger Louisiana. It’s a great place, but we’re losing ground in one of the most telling measures of a state’s vitality:  population growth.

Chairman emeritus and founder of Business First Bank and a partner in RRM-Equity Bank, Buddy Roemer was a four-term congressman and then governor of Louisiana from 1988 to 1992.

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  • Tom Kelly

    Request permissionn to reprint the Buddy Roemer piece in the January edition of The Piney Woods Journal, a print monthly based in Dodson, Winn Parish, LA. with credit to The Lens.
    Tom Kelly
    Editor and Publisher

  • ccToday

    Is it really education?

    If it’s education with respect to morals and ethics, Louisiana is without a doubt, totally, lacking.

    All those public and charter schools, no matter how good their math and English test scores are, will produce students who, as you can already see in New Orleans and Louisiana, don’t believe in right or wrong, don’t believe in honesty, don’t believe in fair play, don’t believe in marriage before having kids, etc…

    These students EVEN go onto college and attend the TOP universities, Harvard, etc and then become Louisiana and New Orleans politicians. Yet, they are so UN-ethical and greedy, it almost always makes national headlines.

    WHAT GOOD IS EDUCATION when since the 1960’s, Louisiana and New Orleans leaders and politicians are eventually indicted and go to jail for their actions in public office? How many mayors, parish presidents, governors, insurance commissioners, public service commissioners, and police have gone to jail for one thing or another?

    I guess no one should be surprised. Louisiana has drive thru daiquiris, highest underage drinking, most bars per capita. A lottery, casino and video poker culture where the business owners could care less about who’s addicted to gambling, yet bring in no positive tax revenue to even pay for the streets, fix the light, or garbage pickup and so on.

    Did I mention schools where there are security guards just to keep the “problem students” sort of inline and not disrupting the class all the time?

    CAN YOU REALLY HAVE A GREAT EDUCATION SYSTEM where a single student because his/her parents had him out of wedlock, abandoned him is allowed to disrupt class after class where the other students can’t concentrate or listen to the teacher?

    WHAT GOOD IS A GREAT EDUCATION SYSTEM if it produces the same politicians that still expect kickbacks and money under the table from all businesses in Louisiana and New Orleans before getting a permit to operate or build?

    …typically unethical Louisiana lawyers and judges who either too incompetent, corrupt, as well as liberal and too lenient, in their civil and criminal judgements who have run Louisiana and New Orleans into the ground since the 1960’s.

  • ccToday

    Oh, silly me. I couldn’t remember such a long list.

    Can you really have a great education system that would produce a rank and file policeman, NOPD, and police union that is so corrupt where every business has to have a police DETAIL outside, i.e. PAY FOR PROTECTION? And have the Justice Dept. enforce a consent decree?

    And can you really have a great education system where it produces the same managers and executives that run the Sewerage and Water Board that is so corrupt and inept in it’s management of the streets and drainage so as demand that residents to pay for even more fees?

    Or can you really have a great education system where it produces City Hall Supervisors and a CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSION that so corrupt and inept, where businesses have to PAY to PLAY just for a building permit or any other permit?

    And can you really have a great education system that produces landlords, contractors and developers that know “how to work the system” as opposed to standing up and doing what’s right?

  • Half the people are in Jail for non-violent crimes and who wants to come to a State that has the largest population in the USA and maybe the world in Jail.

  • ccToday

    To Kitty Wiggins:

    So are you saying, for example, let out from jail all those with smoking WEED, marijuana back out on the streets because they are non-violent?

    Well, doesn’t the city do that already?

    It’s called the drug addicts and alcoholic homeless that are right next to the New Orleans Mission on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd or the drug addicts near the Bridge House or the drug addicts and alcoholics on Earhart and S. Carrollton and Washington and S. Carrollton. They almost always carry a sign that says something like, “WILL WORK FOR FOOD”.

    As you can see in those areas, especially next to the New Orleans Mission on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd, they have only NON-profits, mental services, and maybe rehab for those children and teenagers that grow up in a home with a drug addict or alcoholic parent. Certainly not any businesses that pay tax dollars to the city as opposed those NON-PROFITS that drain the tax dollars from the city for social services.

    So, is that what you want to do by allowing NON-VIOLENT offenders out of jail, or not even put then in jail? That is, continue to drain tax dollars out of city that has lost most of it’s former businesses and now doesn’t have any businesses to pay tax dollars in the first place?