2010 Census and Politics: Are Economic Forces Redrawing Congressional Map?

Originally published in the Christian Science Monitor

December 20, 2010
Mark Trumbull (Staff Writer, Christian Science Monitor)

New population data from the Census Bureau this week will reshuffle political clout among the states, and the power shift may be amplified by economic forces as well as demographic ones. Simply put, some states have been gaining people because they offer cheaper housing or more abundant jobs.
Consider that the state poised to gain the most new congressional seats is Texas, which happens to be home to strong job growth, low tax rates, and relatively light regulation of business.
Texas could gain four new congressional districts due to its rapid population growth over the past decade.
Of course, one big driver of population growth in places like Texas is birth rates and immigration. But another factor behind this week's census data is that, in effect, Americans are voting with their feet about where they want to live.
Economic opportunities are one major factor behind those choices, researchers say.
Over the decade from 2000 to 2009, according to Census Bureau data estimates released earlier this year, Texas has added nearly 850,000 people who have moved there from other parts of the country.
California, by contrast, remains the most populous state but hasn't had incoming traffic from other states. Instead, the state has seen 1.5 million more people move out than in during that decade. That population loss is more than offset by other gains (such as from immigration), but the bottom line is that the Golden State may notch no change in congressional seats.
Critics of California say a key reason is that its economic climate is much poorer than that of Texas.
Joel Kotkin, a reserarcher at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., wrote a critique of the state's policies a few months ago in the City Journal, under the headline: "The Golden State's war on itself."
One issue is tax rates, he argues. But taxes are just part of a broader array of economic policies – from zoning to the treatment of labor unions – that may affect where jobs are created and where people move.
Whatever the reasons, the winners of the congressional-seat sweepstakes appear likely to be so-called red states (which favor Republican candidates in national elections) or purple ones (swing states). States likely to lose congressional seats are overwhelmingly in the blue (Democratic-voting) camp, concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest.
The official Census data will be released Tuesday. According to estimates by Election Data Services, a political consulting firm, states that are prime candidates to win at least one new congressional seat are Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Washington. States losing seats may include Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Louisiana.
That forecast calls for the most seats to be gained in Texas (four) and Florida (two), while the biggest losses would fall on New York and Ohio (each losing two seats).
Because America's overall population is growing, and the number of congressional seats remains constant, states need to gain population just to stay even in its number of seats in the US House of Representatives (although each state gets to have at least one representative).
The states most likely to gain House seats tend to have lower taxes than the states poised to lose seats. But that doesn't necessarily mean tax rates are a central factor behind population shifts.
Jon Shure, a state-policy expert at the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, argues that efforts to prove a link between tax rates and migration "always far fall short."
But in other ways, economic policies matter. Mr. Shure says people tend to move among states because of job opportunities. Businesses may move among states because of factors like labor costs and regulations, Mr. Shure says.
In turn, the cost of labor is linked closely to the cost of living for employees. Affordable and available housing is a lure for people to migrate. By lowering labor costs, it's also a kind of infrastructure for job creation.
Harvard University economist Ed Glaeserhas done research concluding that housing supply has become the key force prompting people to move to the Sun Belt. These states tend to have lots of land, but also policies that are friendly to builders.
"Those zoning rules have a major role" in promoting the growth of Texas and slowing the growth of coastal California, Mr. Glaeser says.
States such as Arizona and Georgia have benefited from their ability to produce vast amounts of affordable housing. "It's not that these places are in any sense the most productive places in the country," he says. "And it's not as if they have the most pleasant climates."
One big caveat about the political implications of the coming census news: If people are moving to the Sun Belt, that doesn't mean they're becoming more Republican in their politics. To some extent, people from blue states are bringing more liberal politics with them.