Tennessee is growing. According to US Census estimates Tennessee has added some 525,614 people since the census in 2000. In that time, the Eastern and Middle Divisions, as defined by TN Code 4-1-202 through 204 have seen their population increase by nearly 500,000. The Western Division, by contrast, has only added 30,000 people.
The Western Division suffers from some issues that have contributed to this poor population performance. First, the W. Division has fewer counties (21) that are far more rural than the other two divisions. The W. Division has only 1 of the 10 largest counties in Tennessee…Shelby. Only Shelby, Madison, Tipton and Gibson have populations over or near 50,000. By contrast, Middle TN has 8 Counties with populations greater than 50,000, and East TN has 15.
According to these estimates, Shelby County has only grown by just over 9000 people since 2000. Davidson, Rutherford, and Williamson in Middle TN have grown by over 150,000 total in the same time period. Knox, Hamilton, Blount and Sevier in the East have grown by around 100,000. Where have all the West Tennessee people gone?
10 counties in West TN have seen population declines since 2000 for a total of 6500 fewer people. Tipton and Fayette, the two counties surrounding Shelby have seen a growth of almost 16000 people. Many of these new residents are likely from Shelby Co., creating a growth neutral situation. DeSoto Co., MS has seen growth of some 50,000 since 2000, the vast majority of these people have moved from Shelby Co. Under these circumstances, the growth that Shelby County “feels” in terms of infrastructure use is not realized in the tax base, or the population leading to a net negative growth as a percentage of the entire state’s population of 1.8% division wide.
With redistricting coming up in 2010, the Western Division stands to lose as many as 3 Representative and 1 Senator, if these numbers hold true, to the quickly expanding Middle. This is bad news for as many as 4 elected officials as well as the people of the Western Division, but at this point, there’s not much that can be done by 2010.
The closure of several manufacturing plants in NW TN, and the general absence of economic diversity in rural counties is partially to blame for this decline, but the majority of the cause is right here in Shelby Co. High crime, low graduation rates, rampant poverty, and a reliance on existing employers to “grow our way” out of the problem have hampered Shelby’s growth, sending more and more people to N. Mississippi, which has almost tripled in population since 1990.
Mayor Herenton’s famous declaration calling on people to “leave” rather than addressing the problems of the City can’t have helped the situation.
On the flip side, nearly all of the new employers to the state in the past several years have taken residence in the Eastern and Middle divisions. This helps explain their growth as much as our inability to maintain our percentage of the statewide population.
In the end, while this is an ugly scenario, this is the reality that we’re facing in two years, assuming that the numbers hold true. For Democrats, it gives us one more motivating factor for taking back the House in 2010, to keep Republicans from exploiting these statewide demographic shifts in redistricting. For the Western Division, it further illustrates the need for us to demand better from our elected representatives in state, county, and city government.
We have a lot to address, and it can’t all be done by 2010, but it’s important for the 21 counties here in the West not fall so far behind that we become an economically depressed area of Tennessee. We have a great deal to offer, but we also have to stop being our own worst enemies, and work together to raise the standard of living for all West Tennesseans. It’s a tough row to hoe, but inaction is not an option.