There’s no mystery about why public officials are so focused on population statistics, but sometimes the fluctuations and the method for determining population totals are a little hard to figure out.
Last week, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that Lawrence’s population had made a surprising gain of 1.7 percent in 2009. That was great news after several years when the city’s growth rate was under 1 percent.
But it was surprising news because sales tax revenue and the number of jobs in Douglas County have lagged during that time. The real estate market reportedly picked up somewhat last year but that might be a result of a homebuyers tax credit that went into effect.
The 1.7 percent population increase for Lawrence in 2009 amounts to 1,544 people, but no one really counted those people. Every 10 years, the Census Bureau attempts to actually count people, but in the years in between they just estimate. The bureau’s method, as explained in what it probably thinks is a simple eight-page summary on its website, involves using birth and death data along with complicated formulations for net domestic and international migration.
You know what they say about “lies, damned lies and statistics.”
The Census counting method is, no doubt, statistically sound, but that doesn’t necessarily make it accurate. In the last three years, city officials have been unpleasantly surprised by population figures that showed slow annual growth of 0.5 percent, 0.8 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively. This year, they were pleasantly surprised by an increase of 1.7 percent. The figure for 2010 will be an actual count, rather than an estimate. What “surprises” will it hold?
The size of Lawrence’s population can have a significant impact on federal funding and any number of planning issues. For instance, the city made a major funding commitment several years ago to expand the Clinton Water Treatment Plant to respond to expected population growth in the city. If the population and the number of water customers doesn’t grow, the city will be hard-pressed to pay for the multi-million-dollar expansion without significantly increasing local water bills.
The 1.7 percent population increase appears to be good news, but fluctuations in the figures also give cause for caution. Until other indicators catch up with the census estimates, it seems city officials would be smart to be conservative in their planning for Lawrence’s growth.