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U.S. counties dying off at a rate not seen in generations

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WELCH, W.Va. -- In 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.

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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.

"You're the anchors of our Main Streets," President Obama told small business leaders Tuesday in Cleveland. "We want your stories -- your successes, your failures, what barriers you're seeing out there to expand. How can America help you succeed so that you can help America succeed?"

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."

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."

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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