A third of American counties are dying

A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock, File)

A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va.
(AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock, File)

A record number of U.S. counties — more than 1 in 3 — are now dying off, hit by an aging population and weakened local economies that are spurring young adults to seek jobs and build families elsewhere.

New 2012 census estimates released Thursday highlight the population shifts as the U.S. encounters its most sluggish growth levels since the Great Depression.

The findings also reflect the increasing economic importance of foreign-born residents as the U.S. ponders an overhaul of a major 1965 federal immigration law. Without new immigrants, many metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis would have posted flat or negative population growth in the last year.

“Immigrants are innovators, entrepreneurs, they’re making things happen. They create jobs,” said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, at an immigration conference in his state last week. Saying Michigan should be a top destination for legal immigrants to come and boost Detroit and other struggling areas, Snyder made a special appeal: “Please come here.”

The growing attention on immigrants is coming mostly from areas of the Midwest and Northeast, which are seeing many of their residents leave after years of staying put during the downturn. With a slowly improving U.S. economy, young adults are now back on the move, departing traditional big cities to test the job market mostly in the South and West, which had sustained the biggest hits in the housing bust.

Census data show that 1,135 of the nation’s 3,143 counties are now experiencing “natural decrease,” where deaths exceed births. That’s up from roughly 880 U.S. counties, or 1 in 4, in 2009. Already apparent in Japan and many European nations, natural decrease is now increasingly evident in large swaths of the U.S., much of it rural.

Despite increasing deaths, the U.S. population as a whole continues to grow, boosted by immigration from abroad and relatively higher births among the mostly younger migrants from Mexico, Latin America and Asia.

“These counties are in a pretty steep downward spiral,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, who researched the findings. “The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age. Unless something dramatic changes — for instance, new development such as a meatpacking plant to attract young Hispanics — these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease.”

The areas of natural decrease stretch from industrial areas near Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the vineyards outside San Francisco to the rural areas of east Texas and the Great Plains. A common theme is a waning local economy, such as farming, mining or industrial areas of the Rust Belt. They also include some retirement communities in Florida, although many are cushioned by a steady flow of new retirees each year.

In the last year, Maine joined West Virginia as the only two entire states where deaths exceed births, which have dropped precipitously after the recent recession. As a nation, the U.S. population grew by just 0.75 percent last year, stuck at historically low levels not seen since 1937.

Johnson said the number of dying counties is rising not only because of fewer births but also increasing mortality as 70 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 move into their older years. “I expect natural decrease to remain high in the future,” he said.

Among the 20 fastest-growing large metropolitan areas last year, 16 grew faster than in 2011 and most of them are located in previously growing parts of the Sun Belt or Mountain West. Among the slowest-growing or declining metropolitan areas, most are now doing worse than in 2011 and they are all located in the Northeast and Midwest.

New York ranks tops in new immigrants among large metro areas, but also ranks at the top for young residents moving away.

In contrast, the Texas metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston and Austin continued to be big draws for young adults, ranking first, second and fourth among large metro areas in domestic migration due to diversified economies that include oil and gas production. Phoenix, Las Vegas and Orlando also saw gains.

By region, growth in the Northeast slowed last year to 0.3 percent, the lowest since 2007; in the Midwest, growth dipped to 0.25 percent, the lowest in at least a decade. In the South and West, growth rates ticked up to 1.1 percent and 1.04 percent, respectively.

“The brakes that were put on migration during the Great Recession appear to be easing up,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the migration data. “Native migrants are becoming more ‘footloose’ — following the geographic ups and downs of the labor market — than are immigrants, who have tended to locate in established ethnic communities in big cities.”

“Immigration levels are not where they were a decade ago, but their recent uptick demonstrates the important safety valve they can be for areas with stagnating populations,” he said.

Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the Population Reference Bureau, noted that political efforts to downsize government and reduce federal spending could also have a significant impact on future population winners and losers.

Since 2010, many of the fastest-growing U.S. metro areas have also been those that historically received a lot of federal dollars, including Fort Stewart, Ga., Jacksonville, N.C., Crestview, Fla., and Charleston-North Charleston, S.C., all home to military bases. Per-capita federal spending rose from about $5,300 among the fastest-growing metros from 2000 to 2010, to about $8,200 among the fastest-growing metros from 2011 to 2012.

“Federal funding has helped many cities weather the decline in private sector jobs,” Mather said.

Other findings:

—Roughly 46 percent of rural counties just beyond the edge of metropolitan areas experienced natural decrease, compared to 17 percent of urban counties.

—As a whole, the population of non-metropolitan areas last year declined by 0.1 percent, compared with growth of 1 percent for large metro areas and 0.7 percent for small metropolitan areas.

—In the last year, four metro areas reached population milestones: Los Angeles hit 13 million, Philadelphia reached 6 million, Las Vegas crossed 2 million and Grand Rapids, Mich., passed 1 million.

Chattahoochee County, Ga., home to Fort Benning, was the nation’s fastest-growing county, increasing 10.1 percent in the last year.

The census estimates are based on local records of births and deaths, Internal Revenue Service records of people moving within the United States and census statistics on immigrants.

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Online: www.census.gov
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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3 Responses to "A third of American counties are dying"

  1. Sandy Price  March 14, 2013 at 9:36 am

    What seems to be missing with all of these fading cities is a desire for growth; growth from the individual generations to plan for their own well being. Could it be that many Americans look to the federal government for any kind of growth?

    Since the end of WW2, far too many American families have tried to elect federal leaders all the way down to school board members to fix what ails the American family after a devastating world war. We ended up extending the world of war in Korea and Vietnam. The individual American was lost in an effort to rebuild the family unit.

    Did we allow the world of television to replace the core of the family itself? We turned our brains over to the exposure of new products that would fix us as individuals and income producers.

    Our culture turned into an element of shocking bad taste. Art, music, literature and even poetry was taken over by various body functions that did catch the attention of many.

    I was taken into the television presentation of celebrating the new Pope. I am not a Christian but just an old lady in search of a spiritual plan to bring a state of growth and happiness to the American family. I love the thought that St. Francis was the name chosen by the new Pope. We are a family of animal lovers and this was a very positive action.

    Being a fan of Ayn Rand, I would want the focus for any planned culture to be based on the individual qualities and talents of the members of the family. If the church wants to get involved in finding pleasure within a family unit or even a city government, I would be the first to volunteer.

    Our cities are made up of individual family units working together to build communities and schools laid out with safety and good health in the bargain.

    The key element within this recipe of a good community should be the family taking control over the schools, laws and welfare assistance. Too many wars took our best Americans and a culture of television commercials robbed us of planners for the next generation.

    The cities close up gradually leaving huge developments of cheap housing with no jobs anywhere to be found. The strength that is missing in America is the concept of a strong intelligent community of individuals. This is the community that Ayn Rand wrote about and putting the whole package under the individual head of the family is what killed it.

    The government should give us our laws and stay out of the family planning part. That takes too much time away from television shows about the wives of Atlanta, etc.

    We traded our American way of life from Ayn Rand to George Orwell. It is a more popular concept than to try and make individuals the core of our being.

    There will never be an organized plan for individuals in America.

  2. woody188  March 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Kind of flies in the face of the recovering economy myth we are being fed by Congress and Wall Street. How can an economy based on consumer spending be on the mend when there are fewer consumers spending?

  3. Jon  March 14, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    I’m wondering why a declining population is seen as a bad thing.

    Elementary economics would seem to imply that the fewer people there are, the more they will be valued, and I claim that valuing people more is a good thing.

    J.

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