Rural Counties Are Losing Population and Aging, But Are They Really ‘Dying?’

BY Dante Chinni  March 4, 2011 at 1:41 PM EDT

Centralia, Pa.; Creative Commons photo courtesy Molly Des Jardin (flickr.com/mdesjardin)

As the 2010 Census results start to roll out, America is beginning its decennial demographic “who are we” discussion. Are we older than 10 years ago? Are we more diverse? And where are we going — literally — when we move?

One recent story about America’s demographic fate concerns “dying counties” — small rural places losing people, particularly the young, to bigger urbanized areas as their population ages.

Patchwork Nation, of course, is inherently interested in these discussions. And in our experience of using demographic data to break the 3,100 U.S. counties into 12 community types, we’ve often found that who we are is not easily answered with a few numbers.

The idea of dying counties is a case in point.

Some smaller counties truly are sliding in terms of incomes and standard of living and some are aging. But dying may be a bad word for large parts of rural America.

Places Not Long For this World?

To get a feel for the story of where the dying counties are in America we looked at smaller places – fewer than 25,000 people – that have lost at least 10 percent of their population since 2000. (We used 2009 population estimates since the final numbers for the 2010 Census aren’t yet available.)

Roughly 300 counties fall into that group. Where are most of them in our 12 Patchwork Nation types?

The nation’s small, rural, agricultural Tractor Country counties lead the way by a large margin. More than half those 300 dying counties are in Tractor Country – 151 of them. No other type is even close.

Some 33 counties that fall into our culturally conservative Evangelical Epicenters would be in the “dying” group, as would 31 of our Minority Central counties with large African-American or Native American populations.

The other three county types with large numbers in the “dying” group are the aging Emptying Nest counties, the Immigration Nation counties with large number of Latinos and the small town Service Worker Centers. They all have more than 20 counties that would fit the criteria to be “dying.”

Those six county types share a few attributes. They all tend to be more sparsely populated and have lower-than-average median household incomes. Low incomes. Aging people. Declining populations. That would seem to equal “dying” by many measures.

A Demise Greatly Exaggerated

That’s where things get tricky. There are certainly some counties in all those Patchwork Nation types that are struggling – maybe even “dying” – but it is hardly that cut and dried.

Take, for example Tractor Country, as we have noted in this blog and elsewhere, those places have missed most of the worst parts of the recession. The unemployment rate in those 311 counties is far below the national average – at about 5 percent – and the foreclosure problem in them is largely nonexistent.

That’s not to say all Tractor Country counties are thriving. Some are hurting more than others. But as whole, these counties are doing fairly well economically.

They are getting older and shedding people, but that has as much to do with the changing state of agriculture as anything else. In our conversations with people in Sioux Center, Iowa, a Tractor Country community we regularly visit, we have heard about how farm machinery and land prices have made it harder for younger farmers to get into the business.

Family farms may be passed on to one child, but second and third children find it hard to start from scratch. Many choose to leave, but many that stay behind aren’t struggling.

On the other hand, some of these county types with large numbers of “dying” communities really are struggling.

The Service Worker Centers, for instance, have suffered some of the hardest parts of the recession. As small manufacturing has dried up, unemployment has risen. Worse, many of those economic problems seem more structural than just recession-related.

The Evangelical Epicenters have also seen hard times recently. But the problems aren’t limited to rural America.

Consider the big city Industrial Metropolis counties, which are clearly something of a mixed bag at the dawn of this decade. On the whole their population grew by three percent between 2000 and 2009. But for every New York or Washington, D.C., that is growing, there is a Baltimore or Philadelphia that is shrinking and struggling.

And that’s not even mentioning the wide disparities in those places one can see on a short drive through them.

The point?

On the whole, rural counties are getting less populous and older. But are they really “dying” compared with the rest of the country? That depends on where you look and how you look at it.