In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the disappearance of over 113,000 people in Fulton County in a single year, at least on paper.
Now, two years later, the bureau estimates that about half the vanished masses, some 57,000 people, are back.
Some population experts find those numbers confounding, improbable and a knock on the census’ credibility, but bureau officials aren’t swayed.
Regardless of their accuracy, the estimates matter: They represent big money.
Billions of federal dollars flow to Georgia in accordance with census population figures. Atlanta, for instance, calculates that each person who appears in census numbers is worth roughly $1,300 in federal funds, citing a Brookings Institution study.
State and local governments also look to the numbers to guide investments in everything from roads to reservoirs, classrooms to courtrooms.
Restaurant owners, retail stores and other businesses eyeball census figures when considering whether to locate in an area. Because metro Atlanta’s economy has been exceedingly dependent on growth, whether the census calculations are wrong or right will help determine how quickly the region regains its economic momentum.
A quick primer: Every 10 years, the Census Bureau performs an actual count of people, sending out survey forms and going door-to-door. In the 9-year stretches between counts, the census estimates the change in population for each state, county and city, based on various factors.
It’s the county-level estimates for Fulton and other metro Atlanta counties for the years 2011 and 2012 that are at issue now.
Mike Alexander, research chief for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said of the Fulton estimates: “We think those growth rates are too high.”
Alexander believes the recession slowed Fulton’s growth too much to support the estimate. Furthermore, he said, there just haven’t been that many building permits issued in Fulton or any significant growth in the schools.
“It’s like my entire hometown moved to Fulton,” said Joseph Hacker, assistant professor for planning and economic development at Georgia State University. “I don’t buy it.”
Census officials stand by their numbers.
“Our estimates overall are very accurate,” said Alexa Jones-Puthoff, the Census Bureau’s chief of population estimates. “As in all estimates, they are estimates.”
Jarring, but accurate?
Rewind to 2010 in Fulton County, though, and you’ll find an instance in which the accuracy of the estimates looked questionable, at best. It was after the census went out and performed its once-a-decade, house-to-house count that it reported that Fulton actually had 113,000 people fewer than the census had estimated in 2009.
It appeared that, between 2000 and 2010, the estimate for Fulton had gotten inflated, big-time. Now, some local population researchers worry that the census is on the same path.
“They might repeat themselves,” Hacker said. “They’re already two years in, and they seem wildly off.”
On the other hand, if the Fulton estimate is correct, some significant metro trends have shifted dramatically. For one, Fulton would be growing faster than Gwinnett County, a startling reversal of a decades-long pattern.
For another, Fulton’s surge would be outpacing its growth during the boom years of the 1990s, when it averaged about 17,000 additional people a year. The latest estimate, for 2010 to 2012, shows annual average growth of about 28,500.
The ARC, which creates its own population estimates, pegs Fulton’s growth for those two years at about a quarter of the census estimate.
The same discrepancy between the latest census estimates and ARC numbers is evident for Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb counties — with the census affording each county greater growth — but the gap is most pronounced in Fulton.
The reverse view
Fulton County demographer Alexander “Sandy” Speer thinks the census blew it — but in 2010, when, he says, the actual count missed tens of thousands of Fulton residents.
In essence, he finds the total in the current estimate perfectly credible — not because the county has gained 57,000 people but because many of them were there all along.
Speer, however, has a dog in this fight. He helped boost the last decade’s estimates for Fulton and the City of Atlanta by getting the bureau to revise the figures upward in 2005 and 2006.
“I personally feel like we’re catching up with my numbers,” Speer said. “The 2010 census count was an anomaly. Everything else was in a straight line.”
After the 2010 count, Atlanta filed a challenge with the Census Bureau, arguing that the counters missed about 3,250 housing units, or about 5,000 to 6,000 people. If the city prevails, the added population numbers could translate to an extra $80 million in federal funds during the next decade, according to city Urban Planner Jessica Lavandier.
A decision on the challenge is pending. Meanwhile, the 2012 estimates for Atlanta and other cities are scheduled for release this week.
Some demographers, including Speer, also believe Fulton has seen strong growth in the past two years, as people once again repopulated housing units that had been left empty due to the recession and foreclosures.
In addition, the creation of several independent cities in north Fulton, each offering its own services, makes the area more attractive, said Andy Carswell, a University of Georgia associate professor of housing and consumer economics.
Terry Jackson, director of the state Office of Mapping and Decision Support Systems, said he sees strong indicators of growth in Fulton. He pointed to the resurgence of manufacturing and an abundance of housing.
Still, even he gets confused by all the conflicting figures.
“You reach a point where you stop and wonder about all the numbers,” Jackson said.
Whether the estimates are wrong or right, they come at a good time for cash-strapped Fulton County. More state and federal agencies are turning to the annual estimates, as opposed to 10-year counts, to decide how much money counties and cities receive.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development already factors census estimates into Community Development Block Grants, which can be used to eliminate urban blight, build affordable housing, build sidewalks and sewer systems or rebuild after weather disasters.
Last year Atlanta received $7.8 million through the program, Gwinnett County received $4.3 million and Fulton County received $1.7 million, according to HUD.
The federal Department of Labor has started using estimates to dole out grants to fight unemployment, affecting millions of dollars per year for Fulton and Atlanta. Beginning in 2015, the state Department of Human Services will use estimates to calculate funds for the elderly and disabled, according to a spokeswoman.
Liz Hausmann, who represents North Fulton on the County Commission and is the public policy coordinator for the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, said ARC’s recent track record is better than the census’ when it comes to estimating population.
But she said the county has plenty to offer newcomers, so the census may have gotten it right. “It could be possible,” she said, “but I’d like to see the backup data.”
No disrespect to ARC, said Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, but he has more faith in census estimates, and not just because those numbers come from a sophisticated federal agency whose job is to count people. He sees evidence of Fulton gaining its mojo back, with residents moving back to Atlanta’s inner core in neighborhoods such as Old Fourth Ward, West End and Westview.
“You have good services, you have wonderful diversity, you have a concentration of colleges and universities in Atlanta, you have jobs,” Eaves said.
Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said she’s not bothered, one way or the other, because federal money dependent on census figures is a relatively small slice of the county’s budget.
Besides, she said, “It is what it is — if you have greater population, you have greater service demands.”
Estimated population growth, 2010-2012
County Census ARC
Fulton 57,190 15,519
Gwinnett 36,725 17,779
Cobb 19,366 11,422
DeKalb 15,196 8,807
Cherokee 6,969 6,454
Clayton 6,464 2,876
Rockdale 605 885
Henry 5,131 5,578
Douglas 1,568 1,497
Fayette 957 933
A tale of two methods
Both the Census Bureau and the Atlanta Regional Commission start with the county’s total population as determined by the latest 10-year census count. From there, their methodologies diverge.
Factors the census uses in calculating its estimates are birth and death records and IRS tax return data, which serve as an indicator of how many people moved into and out of each county.
ARC also uses birth and death records, but it does not have access to the latest IRS data. Instead, it looks at the number of building permits issued, plus postal records, which indicate how many housing units are occupied and how many are vacant.