Area Population, Properly Understood

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin
There’s an unfortunately misleading story from the Lake Geneva Regional News, picked up uncritically at the Banner, on a population increase for Walworth County and part of Whitewater. See “Walworth County population is up — here and there.”

The story (1) cites a tiny population increase, (2) ignores relative trends entirely, and (3) leaves readers (and any policymakers ignorant enough to take the story at face value) with a false confidence in growth that’s unsupported by serious demographic assessments of the area.

1. The Tiny Population Increase. From the story, one reads that

Overall, Walworth County’s population in the past seven years has increased by more than 300 people, from a total of 102,228 to 102,590.

Other than the village of Bloomfield, the biggest sign of growth has occurred in the city of Whitewater, where the population jumped from 11,150 to 11,541 [that is, the Walworth County part of Whitewater].

For Walworth County, that’s an increase of about 0.3% (three tenths of one percent) over seven years.

(Update for WW detail: A measure for Whitewater from 2010 to 2016, using population estimates for all of Whitewater into 2016, shows growth and then decline over the last few reported years: 14,401 (2010), 14,661 (2011), 14,852 (2012), 15,052 (2013), 15,035 (2014), 14,685 (2015), 14,517 (2016).)

Imagine if one invested a dollar for seven years, and at the end of that time learned that after those many years one gained only a third of a penny.

That’s what this increase looks like. It’s the same increase that the Lake Geneva Regional News reporter describes as “the wave,” “where the population jumped,” etc.

It’s not a wave, it’s a mere trickle. It’s not a jump, it’s barely a walk.

2. The local reporting ignores relative trends entirely. On October 1, 2010, the United States population was 310,036,087; on October 1, 2017 it was 325,994,783. (Using United States Census Bureau population clock data.)

In seven years, the American population increase has been 5%, but locally in Walworth County it’s been only 0.3% . That’s an American population growth rate about 16 times larger over the same period.

Indeed, Walworth County hasn’t just grown slowly, and doesn’t just lag behind America – she is also one of the most income-unequal places in America. See Inequality in the ‘Whitewater-Elkhorn’ Area.

3. Good Policy Requires a Good Grasp of Conditions.  For a generation, Whitewater’s policymakers have too often pushed a positive narrative, no matter how flimsy or  false (and sometimes outright dishonest) that narrative has been.

Policy based on error leads to a misallocation of resources. Policy based on obvious error is, of course, worse (as it should have been more easily caught).

Policy based on a few people’s happy-talk narrative, however, is worse than error: it’s a selfish insistence that all is well so that a few insiders can elevate themselves as the authors of supposed successes while downplaying the real and unfortunate conditions of their fellow residents.  

By insisting that all is well, those most in need are wrongly ignored. By insisting that all is well, policies that would most help those in need are wrongly ignored.

(There’s no mercenary motive in writing this: I have never contended that my own circumstances are unfortunate; on the contrary, I’ve been undeservedly fortunate. It’s a strong & necessary rejection of a lesser outlook that provides all the motivation one needs.)

It is in equal measure ridiculous and reprehensible that this small city has produced a generation of exaggerated accomplishments and under-appreciated suffering.

In our schools and at our university – among elected officials, appointed officials, faculty, and students – one should expect a better grasp of our situation than a shallow, misleading story on our area’s true conditions.