Rural Counties ‘Dying,’ Census Bureau Says, Continuing a Long-Term Trend

Published March 22, 2013

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported one in three counties was “dying” in 2012, a figure that does not surprise Wendell Cox, a consultant to public and private urban planning and transportation organizations.

“While the number is higher than before, it is not at all surprising,” Cox said. “The smaller, nonmetropolitan counties of the nation have had far lower-than-average population growth for decades, as the nation has moved over the last 100 years from largely rural to largely urban.”

Furthermore, the U.S. has been experiencing lower birth rates in recent decades. Lower birth rates are likely to accelerate the trend of county decline in rural areas as people continue to move from smaller-population to larger-population areas, he said.

‘Economic Opportunity’

“People move to cities and metropolitan areas principally for economic opportunity and have since the era of increasing world urbanization began more than 200 years ago,” Cox said.

The Census report shows 1,135 of the nation’s 3,143 counties are experiencing “natural decrease,” where deaths exceed births. In 2009 approximately 880 counties, or one in four, were experiencing natural decrease.

If not for immigration, even some major metropolitan areas would be seeing flat or declining populations, according to the Census report, including New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.

Political Disenfranchisement

This decline of population in small towns and rural counties is “disenfranchising” them politically and economically, as big cities and metropolitan areas come to dominate the state and national governments, said James Huffman, dean emeritus at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon.

In “The Disenfranchisement of Rural America,” a column he wrote for the February 13 issue of “Defining Ideas,” a publication of the Hoover Institution, Huffman noted President Obama won only 20 percent of the nation’s counties in the 2012 election. In Illinois, which is dominated by the Chicago metropolitan area, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) lost 98 of 102 counties. He won overwhelmingly in Cook County, which includes Chicago.

Huffman noted the red state-blue state maps of the nation at election time—red denoting states that vote Republican, blue Democrat—become almost entirely red when taken to the county level.

“The reality of vast expanses of red in some of the bluest of states should concern us if we truly care about self-governance,” he wrote.

In a recent Heartland Daily Podcast, Huffman said people in rural counties who view gun control, land use, and other issues far differently from persons in urban areas are having those urban values imposed on them by the politically dominant city politicians who have little respect for the views of residents outside the urban areas.