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Perspective: The 2020 Census and Alabama

By Stephen G. Katsinas and Emily M. Jacobs

A great deal is at stake in producing a full and complete full count of Alabama’s entire population in the 2020 Census, for a great deal is at stake.

Should Alabama lose its seventh seat in 2020, over eighty years it will have lost a third of its House delegation. Just how would this impact Alabama?

In 1940, when Alabama had nine house members, the House of Representatives had fewer major committees. Today, eighty years later, after the cataclysm of World War II, a Cold War lasting half a century, Vietnam, two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan, six recessions and one Great Recession, the building of the interstate highway system and a trip to the moon, the House has 20 standing committees.

Then as now, House members served on two major committees, and with special dispensation Members can serve on a third. The nine members Alabama possessed until 1950 meant the state was represented on every committee.  With 20 standing committees today, this is not possible; losing a seat in 2020 means Alabama falls from representation on two-thirds to 12 of 20 committees.

But there is more.

All committees are not created equal. In every Congress, Members covet serving on major committees including Rules, Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Armed Services. Standing committees often are of special importance to key businesses or regions of Alabama, such as Science, Space and Technology or Agriculture.  Other committees like Veterans Affairs can be vitally important to local needs, if the district includes, as Tuscaloosa does, a major VA hospital.

Typically, new members serve on one major and one lesser committee. As they establish their reputations and demonstrate their competence as professional legislators, committee assignments improve. But it’s when they hold gavels as subcommittee and full committee chairs that they exercise maximum influence. Getting into leadership generally requires longer service, and the more members a state has, the higher likelihood its broader interests are well represented. This is not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing, but rather simply a thing.

The legislative competence, breadth of committee placements, and seniority Alabama House members in both parties have acquired has had dramatic impact over the past century.  In the 1930s, House Speaker William Bankhead supported Wilson Dam, the Redstone Arsenal and the Tennessee Valley Authority, while House Majority Whip Lister Hill of Montgomery secured funds for medical education in Birmingham. As a subcommittee chair on Committee on Education and Labor, Carl Elliott wrote the Library Services and National Defense Education Acts to help education in Alabama and the nation. Tom Bevill as an Appropriations subcommittee chair, steered millions in federal research funding to Alabama. The late Jack Edwards worked with President Reagan and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to pass the 1986 Defense Reorganization Act.  More recently, Spencer Bachus of Birmingham as Chairman of the Financial Services Committee played a national leadership role in helping the nation grapple with the 2008 financial crisis The broad representation Alabama has had on the House’s many committees has helped all of our state’s members to be more effective in passing substantial national legislation impacts our state and nation.

It Will Be Close in 2020

A loss of its seventh House seat, which translates into less influence across the entire House, puts Alabama at an incalculable risk. This is why the 2020 Census matters.

Within the last month, CNN, CBS, Politico, and even the nonpartisan Election Data Services have predicted Alabama will lose a seat in 2020. Last week, Stateline said if Alabama counts 10,000 more people, no House seat would be lost.

Table 1 reveals some numbers behind the 2020 count. In the first five years of this decade, the nation’s population grew by 4.11 percent, but Alabama only grew by 2.5 percent. Had Alabama attained the national average, there’d be nearly 200,000 more Alabamians, of whom about 150,000 would be in metro and 50,000 in non-metro Alabama. Among Alabama’s 12 Metropolitan Statistical Areas, just three–Huntsville, Baldwin County, and Auburn-Opelika-exceeded 4.11 percent. Birmingham and Tuscaloosa were close, but Anniston, Decatur, and Gadsden lagged.

Chart 1 isolates the 24 Black Belt counties compared to the average of the remaining counties and the statewide average from 1990 to 2018.  As noted in Table 1, Rural Alabama lost -0.9 percent of its population between 2010 and 2015. Chart 1 shows that Alabama’s population steadily rose from 1990 to 2009, then slowed for the rest of the current decade. Population changes for Alabama’s 43 non-Black Belt counties exactly parallel state changes, while Black Belt counties after the Great Recession are losing population.

Moving forward, Alabama should do all it can to ensure a full and complete Census count.  The loss of a House seat in 2020, given the growth in Huntsville and Baldwin County, virtually assures that the 2021 redistricting would result in much larger congressional districts for rural Alabama, and lower levels of day-to-day representation. But even if Alabama should hold its seventh seat, it needs a long-term strategy to address the economic development of the Black Belt and its smaller cities, to avoid the potential loss of one or even two seats in 2030.

Stephen G. Katsinas is Director of the Education Policy Center at The University of Alabama, where he is Professor of Higher Education and Political Science. Email him at [email protected].  Emily M. Jacobs is a Research Associate at the EPC and is pursuing her Master’s in Public Administration.  

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