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Few willing to tackle Georgia's most pressing issue - growth

To paraphrase an old campaign slogan, it's the growth, stupid. It's not the economy. It's not hurried divorces or Jane Fonda or Bible studies or even undocumented immigrants, though they are part of it.

The most terrifying but potentially most beneficial issue facing Georgia is population growth.

Sound boring? Sure it does, at first glance. Take a second look at the numbers. Then you may want to hide in the closet. The ongoing people tide is about to overwhelm us.

Most politicians don't like to discuss the population explosion. It's too vast and complex. Besides, a population graph doesn't offer much vote-getting pizzazz.

Understandably, budding lawmakers like to focus only on small pieces of the big picture. They rail against illegal aliens. Or they turn our highways over to corporate toll-road operators. Or they require consumers to pay for private utilities expansions. All those issues spring from the population spiral.

No one ever quite says so, but Georgia is having trouble coping. The infrastructure - from health care and education to law enforcement and traffic control - is breaking down.

No one dares speak the unspeakable: "Enough already. Runaway growth may kill us if we don't face the future and try to deal with it."

State Supreme Court Justice Harris Hines outlined the challenges in a speech to the Marietta Kiwanis Club earlier this month. Our jaws dropped when we heard some of Hines' assertions. As far as we could tell, no one in a policy-making position even glanced up as Hines said: "They're talking about making I-75 23 lanes wide in a few years in Cobb County, and people are saying, 'Naw, that's not going to happen.' But there are projections out there that, in the next 20 years, Georgia will increase its population by 50 percent." He also pointed out that our prison population has risen from 15,200 in 1983 to 46,900 in 2003.

Douglas Bachtel, a noted University of Georgia demographer, painted this picture for us:

• Overall growth: During the 1990s, Georgia was the sixth-fastest growing state in the nation on a percentage basis and the fourth-fastest growing state on a numeric basis. Recent estimates show this growth to be continuing at an even faster pace. About 60 percent of the growth was from new people moving into the state. A majority of the new residents came from other Southeastern states. Georgia, with 8.4 million people, now has the ninth-largest population of any state.

• Minorities: Georgia has the fifth-largest number (2.2 million) and fourth-highest percentage (28.7 percent) of blacks of any state. Basically, Georgia is a black and white state, but pockets of diversity exist. Officially, Hispanics represent 5.3 percent of the population and number roughly 435,227. However, Bachtel estimates that the true figure for Hispanics is 13 percent of the population, or slightly more than 1 million. Asians account for 2.1 percent of the population and number about 173,170.

• Concentration: Georgia's minority population is heavily concentrated in a few areas. For example, 53 percent of the black population lives in seven counties (Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Gwinnett, Chatham, Richmond and Cobb), and 51 percent of the Hispanic population lives in four counties (Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb).

• Age: Georgia is a young state. The median age for all Georgians is 33.4 years. However, trends suggest Georgia will shortly have one of the fastest rates of growth of the elderly of any state.

• Education and income: Georgia has long-standing levels of low educational attainment and low income. More than 21 percent of the adult population did not graduate from high school. Among blacks, 27.5 percent failed to finish high school. Per capita income in Georgia is $28,523, making us No. 25 in the country. The U.S. average is $30,413. Georgia has 61 counties with per capita incomes lower than Mississippi's bottom-hitting $21,653.

• Infants: Births to unwed mothers remain a major problem. From 1990 to 2002, 36 percent of all Georgia births were to unwed mothers. Twenty-five percent of all the births to white women were to unwed mothers, and two-thirds of all births to black women were to unwed mothers. These figures mean that 50 percent of students in the Georgia public school system live in single-parent households. Georgia has a higher infant death rate than Singapore, Hong Kong, Spain, Taiwan and Cuba.

So, Dr. Bachtel, what else do we need to know?

"Georgia is currently in the midst of four epidemics. They are: high school dropouts, diabetes, substance abuse and gambling," says the demographer.

Hines is more upbeat. He sees much of the growth as a forerunner of greater prosperity for the Peach State. He discusses the high number of professionals moving into Georgia and sees our low taxes, good climate and abundance of water as enduring drawing cards to new growth.

"I am an optimist. We live in the greatest country in the world with the greatest freedoms and technology," says the jurist.

How is our enlightened Legislature dealing with the unbridled growth and its attendant problems? At last report, the lawmakers were about to take bows for denying some state services to hordes of illegal aliens without inflicting much pain on the corporate employers who induced them to come here.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.