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Editorial: Growing number of areas face a long-term decline

Mar. 18, 2013 @ 10:50 PM

The Census Bureau released new figures last week that show a record number of U.S. counties suffering from what demographers call "natural decrease."

That means deaths in the county exceed births. In other words, the county is slowly losing population.

Just a few years ago, about one in four counties across the country was facing this sort of population decline. The new estimates show that now one in three counties is declining. In West Virginia, the numbers are much higher with almost half the counties in the state showing more deaths than births between April 2010 and July 2012.

In our area, Cabell, Putnam and Mason showed natural gains -- more births than deaths. But Wayne, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell and Kanawha all showed that "natural decrease."

In fact, West Virginia is one of only two states that have fewer births than deaths overall. (Maine is the other.)

Nationally, the trend is most prevalent in rural areas and "Rustbelt" states, especially where the local economy has been on the decline. That can mean a sustained downward spiral.

"The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age," University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson told The Associated Press. "Unless something dramatic changes ... these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease."

The improving national economy could actually mean more young people moving away. The recession slowed migration patterns for several years, but the new figures once again show young adults moving in greater numbers to growing markets such as Houston, Orlando and Phoenix.

That is an old story for much of our region, but clearly many areas of the country are facing the same issues.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sparked some criticism last fall when he said that rural America is "becoming less and less relevant." But taken as a warning, his point should not be ignored.

The landscape definitely has changed, as the percentage of Americans living in urban areas has increased from about 40 percent in 1950 to close to 80 percent today. So it is not surprising if the problems facing many small towns and rural areas are not top concerns for many political leaders.

But there is a lot to be lost if these trends continue. It is time for Washington to start paying attention.

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