1,000 rural U.S. counties found losing population as the young leave, old die

October 12, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- One thousand U.S. counties, overwhelmingly rural and mostly bunched in the nation's midsection, are losing population as their young people leave and their old people die, a new study shows.

The study confirms that the upturn in small-town populations during the 1970s, after decades of decline, was just a demographic blip. With the onset of the '80s, the crumbling of the countryside resumed, and even speeded up.

In 1973, 515 U.S. counties had more deaths than births. This dropped to 184 counties in 1979, as the Baby Boomers began having babies of their own. But after 1982, it began to rise again, to 508 counties in 1988, the last year for which figures are available.

More important, it's a self-reinforcing trend. As young families leave these counties, fewer babies are born. Population shrinks. Schools and businesses close. When these babies grow up, they leave.

This surplus of deaths over births is called "natural decrease" and doesn't necessarily mean the total population is declining. Some Florida counties with natural decreases gain population as Northerners retire and move in.

But for about 95 percent of all the declining counties, natural decrease also means overall decrease, says Kenneth M. Johnson, an associate sociology professor at Loyola University of Chicago and co-author of the study.

Professor Johnson and his co-author, U.S. Agriculture Department demographer Calvin L. Beale, write that:

* A total of 1,042 counties -- about one-third of all U.S. counties -- had at least one year of natural decrease between 1950 and 1988. Most of these have years of decrease, producing a trend of decline and loss. * Of these declining counties, 95 percent are rural "non-metro" counties, those without a town of 50,000 people or more, or those not linked by commuting patterns to a metro county. Overall, 40 percent of all non-metro counties in the nation are declining.

* This natural decrease is not due to rural women having fewer babies; in fact, fertility rates among non-metro women are 13 percent higher than the national average. It's due, rather, to young families moving out.

As farms consolidate and coal mines close, the towns that relied on these two industries shrivel. Their young people, seeing no future, move to the cities.

Eventually, these areas find themselves falling below the population thresholds needed to sustain local public services or to retain retail and service competition, Professor Johnson and Mr. Beale write.

Pessimism descends, they write, discouraging the rebuilding needed to attract new investment. "Attention is more likely to turn to holding the line and preserving what the community has, which may only lead to further decline," they say.

Every state, from the woods of Maine to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, is being drained.

But by far the hardest-hit region is the middle of the nation -- from east Texas north through Oklahoma into the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, the hard farm country of northern Missouri and southern Iowa, and up to the decimated iron mining counties of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Here is where the counties that have had 10 to 20 years of continuous decline are bunched. Close behind are counties through the rest of Iowa, into southern Illinois and Indiana, where the collapse of the farm economy in the 1980s has produced three to nine years of decline.

Of all counties that lie outside metropolitan areas and have no town bigger than 2,500 people, fully 66 percent are declining, Professor Johnson and Mr. Beale say.

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