Census shows 25 percent dying in U.S. communities

A coal truck drives through an railroad tressel near downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. Coal brought a large population to the McDowell County in the 1940's. Now the population is shrinking and the county suffers from unemployment and poverty. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

Nestled within America’s once-thriving coal country, 87-year-old Ed Shepard laments a prosperous era gone by, when shoppers lined the streets and government lent a helping hand. Now, here as in one-fourth of all U.S. counties, West Virginia‘s graying residents are slowly dying off.

Hit by an aging population and a poor economy, a near-record number of U.S. counties are experiencing more deaths than births in their communities, a phenomenon demographers call “natural decrease.”

Years in the making, the problem is spreading amid a prolonged job slump and a push by Republicans in Congress to downsize government and federal spending.

Local businesses in Welch began to shutter after U.S. Steel departed McDowell County, which sits near Interstate 77, once referred to as the “Hillbilly Highway” because it promised a way to jobs in the South. Young adults who manage to attend college — the high-school dropout rate is 28 percent, compared with about 8 percent nationwide — can’t wait to leave. For some reason, the fish in nearby Elkhorn Creek left too.

“There’s no reason for you to come to Welch,” says Shepard, wearing a Union 76 cap at a makeshift auto shop he still runs after six decades. “This is nothing but a damn ghost town in a welfare county.”

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In all, roughly 760 of the nation’s 3,142 counties are fading away, stretching from industrial areas near Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the vineyards outside San Francisco to the rural areas of east Texas and the Great Plains. Once-booming housing areas, such as retirement communities in Florida, have not been immune.

West Virginia was the first to experience natural decrease statewide over the last decade, with Maine, Pennsylvania and Vermont close to following suit, according to the latest census figures. As a nation, the U.S. population grew by just 9.7 percent since 2000, the lowest decennial rate since the Great Depression.

Natural decrease is an important but not widely appreciated demographic phenomenon that is reshaping our communities in both rural and urban cores of large metro areas,” said Kenneth Johnson, a sociology professor and demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute who analyzed the census numbers.

Johnson said common threads among the dying counties are older whites who are no longer having children, and an exodus of young adults who find little promise in the region and seek jobs elsewhere. The places also have fewer Hispanic immigrants, who on average are younger and tend to have more children than other groups.

“The downturn in the U.S. economy is only exacerbating the problem,” said Johnson, whose research paper is being published next month in the journal Rural Sociology. “In some cases, the only thing that can pull an area out is an influx of young Hispanic immigrants or new economic development.”

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The predicament is starkest in places like Welch. In the 1960s, McDowell County ranked tops in the U.S. in coal production. Even as it began to stumble, President John F. Kennedy took notice and pushed federal aid to the region. McDowell residents were the first to get federal food stamps when they were rolled out in the Kennedy administration.

After U.S. Steel sold the last of its mining operations by 2003, folks in southern West Virginia began counting on new highway projects to prop up the long-struggling area.

“One of the promises we’re waiting to come is the highway,” said Carolyn Falin, an assistant schools superintendent in McDowell County.

From the east, the Coalfields Expressway would bypass the many two-lane, truck-clogged roads zigzagging through the mountainous region. It would link a freeway to the Virginia state line 65 miles to the southwest. So far, only a few miles are open. Design work on most of it hasn’t been finished.

From the west, a 95-mile King Coal Highway is also envisioned, with some bridge work and a few miles now under construction.

Shepard, who walks to work from a nearby apartment, watched the county’s population plummet 80 percent after U.S. Steel’s exit. Even with the recent opening of a federal prison, Shepard bemoans the area’s decline, including the end of “20 years of the best fishing you ever saw.”

Nowadays, he says, “you can fish but you won’t catch any trout. It’s like the coal mines. It’s all gone.”

Recently the U.S. Senate rejected a $900,000 appropriation for a proposed interchange of the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway near Welch.

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Dying counties in the U.S. were rare until the 1960s, when the baby boom ended. By 1973, as farming communities declined, roughly 515 counties — mostly in the Great Plains — reported natural decrease. The phenomenon then began to show up in industrial regions, such as upstate New York and California. Natural decrease peaked in 2002 at a record 985, or 1 in 3 counties, before increasing births and an influx of Hispanic immigration helped add to county populations during the housing boom.

Following the recent recession, birth rates have dropped to the lowest in a century. Preliminary census numbers for 2007-09 now show that the number of dying counties is back on the upswing. Recent additions include Pittsburgh and its surrounding counties.

James Follain, senior fellow and economist at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University of Albany, said a new kind of declining city may be emerging in the wake of the housing bust — metropolitan areas that rapidly overbuilt earlier in the decade and then suffered massive foreclosures.

He cited as examples Las Vegas, Miami, parts of Arizona, and Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and Riverside in California. Like traditional ghost towns, Follain says, portions of these areas could spiral down from persistent loss of jobs and population and lose their reason for being.

Follain also pointed to a tighter fiscal environment in Washington that will limit help to troubled areas. The Obama administration announced this month it would shrink the government’s role in the mortgage system to reduce taxpayer exposure to risk. House Republicans also are pushing federal spending cuts of more than $61 billion, even if it means reducing jobs.

“It’s going to be a very slow recovery,” Follain said.

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Not all U.S. areas are declining. Most places with the fastest growth since 2000 were able to retain or attract college graduates and young professionals who came for jobs and later started families. Metro areas with diversified economies such as Austin, Texas, Raleigh, N.C., and Portland, Ore., all saw gains in college graduates; other places seeing gains or reduced losses in young adults, such as Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco, have burgeoning biotech industries.

In West Virginia, more than 40 of its 55 counties had natural decrease over the past decade. Yet the state still gained population overall, and averted a loss of a U.S. House of Representatives seat based on the 2010 census.

It wasn’t because of a last-minute turnaround. Most of West Virginia’s population gains are new residents spilling over into the eastern part of the state from the blossoming Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area. The three counties on the Maryland line — Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson — each had substantial increases.

It’s a different story in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, along the edge of Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh.

On a recent afternoon, a group of students mingled during a cigarette break at West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling and chatted about their futures. “It’s not that bad an area,” said Demetrius Paige, 19, but there are “not a lot of jobs.” He plans to leave within six years.

Kayla Murphy, 19, of Moundsville wants to stay in the state and become a nurse to help children like her brother, who has celiac disease and diabetes. She says moving out is the only real option for career-oriented people. They include her boyfriend, who left for Wisconsin to teach history.

“You have to,” Murphy said. “Working at McDonald’s isn’t cool.”

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Yen reported from Washington.

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Online:

Census list of U.S. counties, with births, deaths and natural increase, for 2009:

http://www.census.gov/popest/counties/CO-EST2009-05.html

Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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13 Responses to "Census shows 25 percent dying in U.S. communities"

  1. woody188  February 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    They fail to mention it was government intervention that caused the collapse. The area coal had too much sulfur content according to the regulators. There’s still plenty of coal, it’s just too expensive after the removal of the sulfur to go after and use. I guess the bright side is perhaps they lowered the amount of acid rain. Unsure if anyone ever followed up to see if the acid rain was reduced or not.

    My family is from the area. During the Great Depression, they claim to not have noticed anything different other than strangers coming onto their lands trying to steal their food. Trespassers were shot. You don’t take food off another man’s table without asking.

    Nowadays if you do much hiking around the hills you will come across marijuana grow sites and likely get shot too unless you know the locals. Marijuana is unofficially the largest export from the area.

    • logtroll  February 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      Quote from the article: “Even with the recent opening of a federal prison, Shepard bemoans the area’s decline, including the end of “20 years of the best fishing you ever saw.”

      Nowadays, he says, “you can fish but you won’t catch any trout. It’s like the coal mines. It’s all gone.”

      That damned EPA, they even ruined the fishing!

    • griff  February 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      “Marijuana is unofficially the largest export from the area.”

      Whereabouts do you live again? Buy local, I always say.

  2. Jon  February 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Nitpickery, perhaps, but I suspect illiteracy doesn’t help.

    I dunno where those photo captions come from, but…

    “drives through an railroad tressel”? What? That’s a word they didn’t know how to spell and couldn’t be bothered to look up.

    J.

    PS – No, I’m not Jon C. Hancock. J.

    • logtroll  February 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm

      It gets worser… a trestle isn’t even what the truck just drove under. That would be a “bridge” over an “underpass”.

      Trestles are much cuter.

      • Jon  February 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm

        Technically, it’s a box girder bridge, but that and the ‘an’ I was going to overlook…

        J.

  3. Carl Nemo  February 22, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    “Natural decrease is an important but not widely appreciated demographic phenomenon that is reshaping our communities in both rural and urban cores of large metro areas,” said Kenneth Johnson, a sociology professor and demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute who analyzed the census numbers.” …extract from article

    There’s nothing “natural” about it other than the fact that Congressional traitors in high places have relentlessly supported the nation-destroying concept of “globalism run amok”. Why would anyone in a position of power and as an elected representative of the people do everything within their power to encourage the off-shoring of our industries and manufacturing infrastructure over a 40 year period starting in the early 60’s with U.S. Steel being an example. Industry leaders as well as politicians weren’t interested in encouraging the clean use of coal for energy production.

    Two German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch invented a process named in honor of them in the early part of the 20th century known as the Fischer-Tropsch Coal gasification process.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fischer%E2%80%93Tropsch_process

    The German war machine of WWII used the process to create synfuel and lubricants for their war effort. South Africa has been using for a long time and produces about 20% of its energy from the process. Granted it does produce copious amounts of CO2, but not any amount of high level sulphur. So lack of innovation and concern on our leadership’s part as early as the 60’s basically abandoned this nation’s major energy source which virtually dwarfs all the known energy reserves on earth in the form of oil discoveries. Our coal reserves have enough energy within to supply the U.S. with power for 600 years! Canada too sits on similar multi-trillion barrel equivalencies in its “tar sand” deposits. Instead our corrupt leadership sucked up to the easy money to be made from “sweet crude” from the Middle East which is also hot bed of contentiousness between the various peoples and a zone within which our out of control MIC can make beaucoup bucks as a function of endless engineered conflicts for their benefit starting with Gulf War I to present. Seemingly we aren’t leaving…ever!?

    I’m an “America Firster” and truly believe that there has to be a mighty sea change in D.C. business as usual politics concerning policies that encourage outsourcing of jobs, H1-b visas, or any other policy that aids offshore entities in plumping their GDP.

    In addition I’m for slapping hefty tariffs on all products made abroad with major incentives for corporations that left this country to start rebuilding America’s manufacturing base or newly minted entrepreneurs to do so again. If our former corporate patrons want to produce goods once made in the U.S. in China then they can sell it to Asian’s, but not us at least not so at our national expense. To hell with Asians and the horse they rode in on. If it’s made in China it’s going to cost alot more to purchase or at least have parity with the same product that can be made here and didn’t need to be shipped across the Pacific to us. We get the goods made domestically and also keep the money too. The only people that scream that tariffs don’t work are those pols and talking heads that have been bought off by foreign interests, their secret offshore accounts plumped regularly for doing so.

    A number of offshore corporations have built manufacturing facilities on both American and Canadian soil which is seemingly advantageous to their bottom line. There’s no reason to pound nails that are made in China with same for the hammer that drives them. It’s all corrupt bullsh*t plain and simple. Anyone that says globalism is a good thing has no allegiance to this nation…period! They could care less if we go down the tubes, selling us all out for an easy buck, euro or shekel more. Plain and simple they aren’t businessmen, but traitors to the Republic having no sense of nation. Maybe they need have their citizenship stripped and they can go live in Beijing learn to speak Mandarin and eat with chopsticks too. I’m sure they’ll have real value to the Chinese leadership if exports crater due to stiff tariffs being levied. In short order their fortunes will be confiscated and they and their families can work as slave laborers in a Chinese ‘coal mine’…! : |

    Carl Nemo **==

    • griff  February 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      China is building clean coal plants far faster than America.

      Excerpt…

      But largely missing in the hand-wringing is this: China has emerged in the past two years as the world’s leading builder of more efficient, less polluting coal power plants, mastering the technology and driving down the cost.

      While the United States is still debating whether to build a more efficient kind of coal-fired power plant that uses extremely hot steam, China has begun building such plants at a rate of one a month.

      Construction has stalled in the United States on a new generation of low-pollution power plants that turn coal into a gas before burning it, although Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday that the Obama administration might revive one power plant of this type. But China has already approved equipment purchases for just such a power plant, to be assembled soon in a muddy field here in Tianjin.

      China builds on per month but we “can-do” Americans can’t even get one through the bureaucracy, red tape, and do-gooder lawsuits.

      • Carl Nemo  February 22, 2011 at 6:15 pm

        Great article Griff concerning China’s “can do” efficiency. China couldn’t function with either a parliamentary or bicameral system of governing. With 1.5 billion mouths to feed and to provide energy, there’s no time for endless discussionals.

        Seemingly we’re doomed with the U.S. representative based government having degenerated into a “Tower of Babel” situation that’s all driven by special interests along with bribery known as ‘contributions’ to our duty crimpols.

        Visualize China within fifty years. Everything works well, they’ve embraced “green tech” in spades, their mighty cities rising heavenward and connected by high speed maglev trains, while those in the U.S. are all livinig a coast to coast “Detroit” experience, cities in a state of abject decay while people are pushing their shopping carts about grubbing for scraps or spearing rats with fire-hardened sticks… / : |

        I wish to thank in advance every ‘dirtbag’ liberal, globalist enamoured crimpol, both past and present that’s engineered our seeming demise as a world class innovator in technology along with the destruction of our way of life…NOT! X-(

        Carl Nemo **

        • griff  February 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm

          Fifty years? Dare we hope we have that long? I hope then, that they can start producing shopping carts with more robust wheels. I can never find one that rolls straight or smoothly. Maybe ones with rising-rate suspension systems as well. There are bound to be potholes.

          • bmclellan  February 22, 2011 at 8:46 pm

            I’ve got a nice streamline three wheeler for sale Griff. Minor dents and scratches.
            Got hit in the head with it when the Walmart guy threw it in the dumpster, but looking on the bright side, it also killed that rat that was trying to steal my dinner.

            • griff  February 23, 2011 at 7:57 am

              Sweet! I’ll think about it, but I’ll have to watch old Gilligan’s Island reruns in order to examine their electricity-generating bicycle contraption. Where’s the grid? You take food stamps?

              I was wondering why the rat population is dwindling…dumpster divin’ at Wal-Mart ain’t good for ya.

              • bmclellan  February 23, 2011 at 9:55 am

                Gotta do something for the inner man. Waltzing on, Matilda.

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