Census numbers mean changes for New Jersey


   "We’re number one!" is the usual rallying cry we hear at this time of the year, as college football teams celebrate their bowl victories, high school basketball and wrestling teams their holiday tournament triumphs and other newly crowned champions tout their achievements in a time and a place where winning is placed above all other goals.
   New Jersey enters the new year, however, with a new rallying cry: "We’re number 10!" For the first time in the nation’s history, the Garden State has dropped out of the single-digit category in population and now ranks at the very bottom of the top-10 list.
   That’s the word from the U.S. Census Bureau in its latest update to the 2000 census. As of July 1, 2003, the bureau reports, Georgia had surpassed New Jersey and moved into ninth place. This was the only change in the ranking of the 10 most-populous states. California (35.5 million), Texas (22.1 million) and New York (19.2 million) stayed one-two-three.
   Every state except North Dakota (which lost about 74 people from its estimated total of 634,000) actually gained population in the first three years of the 21st century. But some gained a lot more than others. Nevada, the fastest-growing state, added nearly 74,000 people, or 3.4 percent, with Arizona, Florida, Texas and Idaho not far behind.
   Interestingly, California rejoined the list of the 10 fastest-growing states after dropping off the list a couple of years ago — its population increase driven mostly by immigration. (California actually lost migrants domestically, the Census Bureau reported, mostly to Nevada.) Also joining the list of the 10 fastest-growing states were Delaware and Hawaii. Together with California, they displaced Alaska, Oregon and Colorado.
   (For the record, it must be noted that, like North Dakota, the District of Columbia lost people — almost 5,800, or about 1 percent of its population of 563,000. But it, of course, is not a state, so it falls into a category all its own.)
   These numbers are of intense interest to demographers, who like to keep track of trends in population growth as well as the movement and distribution of people around the country. But crunching these numbers isn’t just an academic exercise; there are significant real-world consequences that result from shifts in population.
   For example, many federal agencies distribute money to states and cities on the basis of population. This means New Jersey will now rank 10th, instead of ninth, in its entitlement to certain federal funds. It also means that if New Jersey continues to grow at a slower pace than the nation as a whole, it will receive a reduced share of federal funding for many programs and services, including mass transit and transportation programs, social services and others on which New Jerseyans now depend quite heavily.
   There may be political repercussions as well. The 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned by population. In the 1960s and 1970s, New Jersey had 15 representatives in Congress based on population. After the 1980 census, the state lost a seat. After the 1990 census, it lost another seat. With every lost seat, the state’s congressional delegation loses clout — not to mention an electoral vote, which diminishes its strategic importance in presidential elections.
   We don’t raise these matters to inspire a rush to repopulate New Jersey. Given the manner in which our state has grown in the past, we’re just as happy to see the repercussions of suburban sprawl visited upon places like Georgia and Nevada for a change. But all of us need to understand what these census numbers are telling us: New Jersey’s standing among the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) is ever-changing, both economically and politically, and we need to be prepared for the consequences — not all of them favorable — that face us down the road.