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Census figures show decline in Sumter population

When the U.S. Census Bureau recently issued figures covering the four-year period from 2000 to 2003, not many would have expected to hear good news population-wise for Sumter County. But the news might have been even worse than expected.

Sumter is, in fact, one of the five fastest-shrinking counties in the state. It’s 4.2 percent drop in population, from 14,798 residents to 14,182, puts it in company with Lamar, Conecuh, Choctaw, and Coosa counties as the only counties to lose more than 4 percent of their residents from 2000 to 2003.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the 4.2 percent drop indicates that the rate of Sumter’s decline has sped up since the 2000 census. The figures compiled that year showed that Sumter had lost 8.5 percent of its population in the ten-year period dating from 1990. If the rate from 2000 to 2003 holds over the remainder of this decade, however, Sumter will have lost another 10.5 percent of its residents.

What does it all mean? The first thing to understand, says Dr. Fred Myers, a sociologist at Livington’s University of West Alabama, is that there’s more margin for error in the Census Bureau’s “intercensal” estimates than in the thorough, count-every-head censuses done at the kick-off of each decade.

“For these intercensal estimates, they’ll do small-scale surveys of parts of the population,” Myers says, “and extrapolate mathematically from there.”

That said, Myers says there’s no doubt that Sumter is struggling to keep residents in the county, and says one immediate reason is the county’s inability to offer its upwardly mobile black college graduates professional jobs.

“I can only imagine that it’s due to the decline in job opportunities,” he says. “You’re looking at what sociologists describe as the ‘brain drain.’ Sumter is sparsely populated but it does have nearby universities where young blacks can get educated, either at UWA or in Tuscaloosa. Once they have their degree they tend to go elsewhere to find more prestigious, better-paying jobs. I think that explains a good bit of the population loss.”

Myers adds that industrial workers are often able to find better-paying employment outside Sumter County, too, making the population decline a combination of both professionals and non-professionals.

“What I don’t know,” he says, “is how much of that 4.2 percent is highly-educated vs. those with a lower level of education

“The median household income in Sumter is $18,900 as opposed to $34,135 for the state, so that gives you an idea of the kind of jobs available here,” he continues. “A more motivated individual looking for something better is naturally going to look elsewhere.”

Whatever the socioeconomic make-up of the population drop, however, it’s not good news for Sumter.

“When you lose people there’s fewer consumers to buy goods and services. For a period of time we’ve seen stores in Livingston closing down, and that’s due in part to the decline in population,” Myers says. “The smaller demand for good and services, in turn, has an impact on the labor force. They wouldn’t be leaving in the first place if work was available.”

So how to turn things around? Myers says that jobs are always the key, but speaking as a member of the Black Belt Action Commission, there’s an important first step in job creation that some might be overlooking.

“It’s mind-boggling to me the percentage of people in the area who never graduated from high school,” he says, noting that a full third of Sumter residents never received their high school diploma. “When you get a population that’s not particularly well-educated, businesses start thinking twice about locating there because of concerns about the quality of labor. They don’t want to operate with a workforce that does not have productive technical skills.”

The first step, then, Myers says, should be to better educate the work force and give potential industry a higher-quality source of labor.

“They’re building the highway and creating a better infrastructure because improvement revolves around creating more jobs,” he says. “But how can you create jobs and attract potential industry when the education is substandard?… I think you have to look at the quality of the school system. We have to improve the quality of the education, and that means putting more tax dollars into the system.”

Not that that would be easy, Myers admits. Without more commerce and a wider tax base, there won’t be much in the way of taxes for schools. But without those taxes, the schools can’t help contribute to making Sumter better and expanding the tax bases they need in the first place.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” he says.

It’s one Sumter will have to find a way to break, however, if the 2010 figures are going to be any more encouraging.