Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Geoff Daily: Lafayette’s population growth isn’t sustainable

Line chart increasing until arrow breaks

Recently, I was skimming through socioeconomic data when I found something that stopped me in my tracks. According to the latest estimates, from 2020 to 2021, the city of Lafayette’s population shrank. That means the city’s population growth didn’t just stagnate as the last census showed; we’re losing population.

Two estimates run by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate this problem.

The federal Population Estimate — which estimates population change by calculating the number of births, deaths and net migration — suggests the city of Lafayette shrank 0.2% from 2020 to 2021. The American Community Survey, which surveys one in 40 American families annually, estimates the city lost 3.3% of its population over that timeframe.

A caveat: Neither of these annual estimates are as accurate as the decennial census. But they do align with the overall trend reported in the 2020 census, which found that the city of Lafayette grew by just 0.6% since 2010, adding a scant 750 new residents over 10 years.

Meanwhile, the rest of the parish is booming. When the 2020 census was released, most media attention focused on the fact that Lafayette Parish as a whole grew more than 20,000 people since 2010, an increase of 9.1%, far outpacing the state’s overall growth of 2.7%. But with the city showing virtually no movement, what really powered that growth was the other municipalities and unincorporated areas of the parish, which collectively grew a whopping 19.2% between the last two censuses.

At the same time, adjacent parishes in Lafayette’s metropolitan area — which includes Acadia, Iberia, St. Martin, and Vermilion parishes — are shrinking. Here’s how much their populations have fallen from 2010 to 2020, according to the census, and from 2020 to 2021, according to the Population Estimate and American Community Survey:

AreaUS Census
2010-2020
Federal Population Estimate
2020-2021
American Community Survey
2020-2021
Acadia Parish-6.8%-0.3%-6.7%
Iberia Parish-4.5%-1.1%-0.3%
St. Martin Parish-0.8%-0.1%-2.6%
Vermilion Parish-1.1%-0.1%-3.4%
Lafayette Parish9.1%0.9%-1.0%
City of Lafayette0.6%-0.2%-3.3%
Population change by geographic area

When you plot these figures on a map, you get a donut, with the city of Lafayette as the hole, the rest of the parish of Lafayette as the rising donut, and the rest of the metropolitan area of Lafayette as the area outside of the donut.

Map in red in green showing how population is distributed

That corroborates observations made to me by folks in real estate, economic development and public policy. Their take is that the boom outside the city of Lafayette is driven in part by people fleeing neighboring parishes in decline and life in the city’s allegedly decaying urban core (don’t believe the hype — it’s great in here!).

What this all suggests is that the rest of the parish’s growth is not from attracting new people to the area, but instead from effectively cannibalizing the city and other parishes. That’s not sustainable.

The city is the economic engine of the parish. It generates 68% of the parish’s retail sales and is home to 73% of the parish’s daytime workforce, despite having just half of the population. Adjacent parishes, meanwhile, make up 50% of the people living in Lafayette’s retail market.

Put simply, there’s no way for the rest of the parish to thrive long-term if the city and rest of the metro area are hurting. Yet I worry that we’ve been allowing the relative success of the rest of the parish to obscure the overall picture of lackluster growth.

Critics of my writings will likely dismiss this as just another example of me being a Debbie Downer. But problems like this will never get fixed if we aren’t willing to address them openly.

We need a sense of urgency about the fact that at least from the perspective of growing our population, we’re moving in the wrong direction.