Rural America Gets Even More Sparsely Populated

Doug Smith and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 15, 2010

The majority of the nation’s sparsely populated rural counties lost even more residents in the last decade, though some of the counties — particularly those in the Mountain West — saw population gains that may be the result of retirees striking out for areas that are both scenic and affordable, according to a Times analysis of figures released by the Census Bureau on Tuesday.

The data offer the first detailed portrait of heartland America in a decade, covering the roughly 1,400 counties of fewer than 20,000 people. The numbers also show a growing Latino presence in these counties.

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But the Times analysis of the numbers shows unequivocally that a thick swath of the country, from north Texas to the Dakotas, has lost population.

Ken Johnson, senior demographer for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, has noted that this shift was the case for much of the 20th century, although the country saw rural population growth in the 1970s, as city-dwellers left struggling cities, and another rebound in the early 1990s.

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Johnson had only begun to study the voluminous data released as part of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

But what he had seen thus far, he said, reinforced how much minorities, particularly Latinos, have contributed to population growth in both urban and rural areas.

Between 2000 and 2008, he noted, 51.2% of the entire population increase in the United States has come from Latinos, who represented 15.3% of the population in 2008.

Most of that growth was not from immigration, but from what demographers call “natural increase”: between 2000 and 2008, there were 8.2 million Latino births in the U.S. and only 900,000 Latino deaths.

The Times analysis shows significant gains in Latino populations not only in the Southwest, but also in rural counties from Mississippi to the northernmost reaches of Montana.

The Census Bureau projects the current total population of the United States to be almost 311 million, with a net gain of one person every 13 seconds.

Data show that many counties in the Great Plains are also experiencing a loss of young people. Johnson said that trend was probably creating a “downward spiral” of population loss in these areas since the young weren’t sticking around to bear children.

“The only thing that might break them out of it,” he said, “is an influx of young Hispanics.”

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