LITTLE ROCK Arkansas’ population continues to shift northwest while the state’s Delta counties endure widespread and deep losses, new U.S. census numbers show.
Thirty-six of the state’s 75 counties lost population in the past decade; 39 gained. Monroe County lost the most with a 20.5 percent decrease. Benton County grew the most with an increase of 44.3 percent - continuing a shift indicated in the previous census.
The state’s previously reported 9.1 percent growth rate gave no indication of the drastic swings. The state’s population grew to 2,915,918 in 2010 from 2,673,400 in 2000.
Arkansas was the ninth state to receive the latest numbers from the decennial count, which are delivered to each state for use in redrawing congressional and legislative districts. The numbers are also important because billions of government dollars are pegged to population figures.
The numbers provide the most detailed look at the state’s makeup in a decade and confirms the steady growth of the Hispanic population.
The number of people who identify themselves as Hispanic doubled from 3.2 percent in 2000 to 6.4 percent of the state’s population in 2010. Hispanics made up 186,050 of the state’s population in 2010, up from 86,866 a decade ago.
“Basically two decades ago that population [of Hispanics] was not terribly different from zero. I’m overstating it, but it was a very small population,” said economist Kathy Deck. “The Hispanic population has gone from being practically nothing to being one out of every 20 people.”
Statewide, of those who identified themselves as not Hispanic, whites made up a majority with 74.5 percent. That number was down from 2000 when whites made up 78.6 percent. The percentage of blacks in the state (15.3 percent) is about the same as a decade ago (15.6 percent).
Asians made up 1.2 percent, an increase from 0.7 percent in 2000. American Indian and Alaskan natives made up 0.7 percent of the population, up from 0.6 percent in 2000.
Only 0.1 percent of the population chose to identify as “some other race,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 2010 Census allowed respondents to select more than one race on census questionnaires, and about 1.6 percent of the population identified themselves as two or more races. That’s up slightly from 1.1 percent in 2000 - the first time the Census Bureau allowed people to select more than one race.
“The highlights were something we expected but we needed to verify it,” said Phyllis Poche, the director of the state’s census data center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Poche said the data confirmed a few key findings:
The Delta counties continue to hemorrhage people.
The state’s northwest counties grew rapidly.
Pulaski County continues to be outpaced by growth in surrounding Lonoke, Saline and Faulkner counties.
Pulaski County remained the state’s largest county with a population of 382,748 but grew only 5.9 percent from 361,474 in 2000.
Faulkner County saw the second-highest growth rate in the state, increasing 31.6 percent from 86,014 to 113,237.
Lonoke and Saline counties both grew nearly 30 percent, as well. Population increases in those counties was further evidence that people are moving out of Little Rock into nearby bedroom communities, Deck and Poche said.
“Anybody that’s driven by in the last decade, Conway has exploded,” Deck said.
Benton and Washington counties were the second and third-most populous, respectively, both surpassing 200,000 for the first time.
Benton County grew from 153,406 to 221,339. Washington County grew from 157,715 to 203,065, a 28.8 percent increase.
“We’re not in direct competition with the Little Rock area and, yet, we want our area to grow and grow steadily,” said Benton County Judge Bob Clinard. “We want to provide a quality of life up here that’s as good as anywhere in the rest of the state.”
Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business, said the state’s growing Hispanic population contributed to the gains in Northwest Arkansas.
Benton and Washington posted the largest Hispanic populations in the state, with each accounting for more than 30,000 people.
But, Deck said, the biggest reason the region grew was because jobs continue to flow into it.
“It’s economic vitality. Pure and simple. The chance to get a good job. In Northwest Arkansas over the last decade, particularly in the first half of the decade, we saw explosive growth in terms of job availability, and so people moved here to take advantage of it,”
Clinard attributed Benton County’s rapid population growth to the region’s largest employers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Tyson FoodsInc. and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.
The three companies expanded hiring opportunities in the area throughout the decade, and the service and housing industries grew alongside them to support employees.
“The larger industries up here have been basically on a roll,” Clinard said. “It’s been wonderful for the economy, but I think it’s going to slow down.”
As the region’s population quickly grew, county and local governments struggled to keep up with infrastructure needs that grew alongside them, he said.
“The type of growth we’ve had is really not good in some ways,” Clinard said.
In the hot summer of 2006, for example, Bentonville and Rogers implemented a voluntary schedule for watering lawns while workers built an additional waterline to Beaver Lake, the region’s water supply. The two cities previously shared two lines, which proved to be too small for demand as housing subdivisions sprouted along their borders.
“I think [businesses] will hold their own, and we’ll get our share,” Clinard said. “We’ll be able to adapt now, and to do it less abruptly.”
The state’s Delta counties saw the largest declines, with six counties - Monroe, Phillips, Lee, Woodruff, Chicot and Desha - seeing population decreases of more than 15 percent.
Deck said the southeastern part of the state has seen “decade after decade” of decline largely because of economic hardship.
“In the same way we get virtuous cycles, we also get vicious cycles, and population decline is often accompanied in this kind of a vicious decline,” she said. “Because as population declines, you don’t have enough skilled work force to attract potential employers, the employer doesn’t come there and [they] lose that economic opportunity and so people leave.”
“You can see that there are two stories going on in this state,” Deck said. “When you look at the 9.1 percent, it actually masks both stories, many of the places that grew grew substantially and not everywhere grew.” Information for this article was contributed by Evie Blad of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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