Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Impact of truth, half-truths

by Dave Bretl - Walworth County Administrator

December 08, 2011

One feature carried by a number of daily newspapers never ceases to amaze me. Every few days these papers will rate the accuracy of statements made by various state and national officials.

So many of the statements end up in the “lie” category that when a mere “half-truth” is told, I seriously consider making a campaign contribution to that politician who is at least half-honest. What amazes me is not that empirical evidence often contradicts the particular statement, but that the falsehood has no real impact in the minds of many voters.

In this current divisive political climate, it seems that many people will follow their party regardless of the statements made by its leaders. In the reader blogs that invariably follow the story, supporters of the “lying” politician accuse the newspaper of bias while his or her detractors gloat. In the next issue, the other side is caught in a lie and the roles are reversed.

Some of the falsehoods are, undoubtedly, calculated to capture headlines and gain political support. Outrageous statements get the attention of voters. These politicians must reason that the public lacks the ability or attention span to learn anything more about an issue than the sound bite they might hear on the evening news.

In other cases, I actually think it is possible that a lying official really believes the statement that he or she has made is true. They are simply basing their remarks on conventional wisdom and haven’t taken the time to evaluate whether facts support the statements that they are making. In either case, the statements are false.

I have a little more sympathy, however, for the negligent liar than the intentional one. Conventional wisdom can be tricky. Because it is often correct, we tend to rely on it, without independent verification. We believe in it so thoroughly that, sometimes, facts can’t even dissuade us. I recently caught myself parroting conventional wisdom about the county’s population and thought that a fact check of my own would be in order.

Conventional wisdom holds that Walworth County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and that this burgeoning population has been responsible for increasing demands on a host of county services ranging from child support collection to jail beds. To test the first half of the claim I took a look at data maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Administration. In addition to the decennial federal census, which we are all familiar with, the state makes annual population estimates.

After this lengthy introduction, my anticlimactic conclusion is that Walworth County is, or at least was, a fast growing county. From 1970 to 2010 the county’s population grew from 63,444 to 102,228 for an increase of 61 percent. During this period of time, Walworth County was the 14th fastest growing county in the state, outpacing the national rate of growth of 51.7 percent. While the data confirmed conventional wisdom, it also revealed a number of statistics that I found interesting.

• One big decade. Growth in Walworth County did not take place at an even rate over the past four decades. Conventional wisdom regarding our county’s population may have actually originated during the decade of the 1990s when the county’s growth rate was at its peak. In the two decades leading up to 1990, Walworth County grew at a rate faster than the state average, but was, by no means, a stand-out compared to other counties. Walworth was the 30th fastest growing county in the 1970s and placed 33rd during the 1980s. It was during the 1990s that the county experienced extraordinary growth.

Population increased by 22.6 percent over the course of that decade, placing it fourth among the 72 Wisconsin counties in terms of its rate of growth. After peaking in the 1990s, growth continued at a brisk, albeit slower, pace. The county’s population rose 11.1 percent during the past decade.

• Slow growth ahead. While history supports conventional wisdom regarding the county’s population growth, it may not provide an accurate picture going forward. From 2008 to 2011, the county grew at an annual rate of 0.38 percent, about one-third as fast as the annual growth experienced during the previous decade and the slowest average annual rate of increase during the past 40 years. Whether this is a new trend or merely a reflection of the poor economy remains to be seen.

• No growth counties. One statistic that the state hasn’t been promoting is the number of counties that are actually declining in population. Milwaukee County was the sole Wisconsin county that lost residents during the 1990s. A statistic that surprised me was that over one-quarter of counties in the state (19) lost residents during the period of 2000 to 2010.

Aside from providing for interesting discussions at holiday cocktail parties, our understanding regarding population growth has important ramifications for residents. Planning for the future involves the consideration of many variables. Decisions should be made on the basis of facts, rather than hunches. One factor that we cannot afford to overlook is the number of people that programs and facilities will need to serve in the years to come.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.