The good news is Alabama is growing. The bad news is it’s not growing fast enough.
According to U.S. Census estimates for 2017, Alabama’s population growth lags behind most of the country and most of its neighbors in the Southeast.
The likely consequence is Alabama will lose a U.S. House seat (and an Electoral College vote) in the reapportionment to follow the 2020 census.
The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama looked at the numbers and found two major contributors to the state’s slow growth: Alabama’s death rate and a lack of inbound international migration.
Alabama’s death rate is appalling. At 10.8 deaths per 1,000 in 2017, it’s the second-highest in the nation, after West Virginia. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Alabama is a poor state, and poverty is a leading cause of premature death. But Alabama has a whole host of pathologies, from obesity to smoking to poor prenatal care.
As PARCA’s analysis notes: “In 2016, Alabama had the fourth-highest death rate from heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death. Alabama also had the country’s highest death rate from stroke, ranked No. 7 from deaths from cancer and Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases. In 2016, Alabama had the country’s highest infant mortality rate and the second-highest rate of deaths from firearms.”
None of these contributors is likely to improve anytime soon, as access to health care in rural areas becomes even more precarious.
Alabama has reversed recent trends when it comes to inbound migration from other states. “For the first time in several years, Alabama had a positive rate of domestic in-migration — more people moving to the state than leaving for other states,” PARCA reports. But inbound migration still lags behind that in neighboring Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
This is a stat that may improve with the arrival of Toyota-Mazda to Limestone County, along with the suppliers that will follow. But so far, migration from other states can’t make up for the lack of migration from other countries.
According to U.S. Census estimates, Alabama ranks No. 46 in the nation when it comes to attracting new residents from abroad, ahead of only Mississippi, Wyoming, West Virginia and Montana.
For this, Alabama’s political leadership has only itself to blame. In 2011, the Alabama Legislature passed draconian measures aimed at “illegal immigration” that had the net effect of making Alabama look inhospitable to immigrants legal or illegal.
“We really want to prevent illegal immigrants from coming to Alabama and to prevent those who are here from putting down roots,” the law’s chief sponsor, disgraced former state Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, said at the time. Well, mission accomplished. The South’s most immigrant-friendly state, Florida, and the booming border state of Texas expect to gain two seats each in the U.S. House, while Alabama will lose one.
Alabama is the only state in the South expected to lose a House seat. The other states are mostly in the Rust Belt, where politicians cling to the false hope of “bringing back” 20th century industries rather than embracing the 21st century. That includes Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.
The fastest-growing area of Alabama is the tech-oriented Tennessee Valley, but even Huntsville’s spectacular growth, spilling over into Limestone County and projected to make Huntsville the state’s largest city, surpassing Birmingham, by 2022, isn’t making up for the rest of the state.
To accelerate population growth, Alabamians could use some healthier habits and Alabama could use some fresh blood. Part of that means changing attitudes. Part means changing priorities, such as spending more on health care, including mental health care, and less on prisons, which means reducing the state’s incarceration rate, which ranks in the nation’s top five.
And part of it means living up to the region’s reputation for “Southern hospitality” and actually making it easier for people who want to come here to live, rather than making it harder.