[imgcontainer][img:map1.jpg][source]Data, U.S. Census[/source]Map shows rural and exurban counties where number of deaths exceeded number of births (red) and where births exceeded deaths (green). Click the map to make it interactive in a new window.[/imgcontainer]

Is your county dying?

The U.S. Census issued a report last week showing that counted births and deaths in all U.S. counties from the end of June 2011 to July 1, 2012. There were more deaths than births in 36 percent of the nation’s 3,100-plus counties.

In rural counties, the percentage of places with more deaths than births was even higher. Nearly half (46 percent) had more deaths than births. A number of news reports carried headlines saying that these counties were “dying.” 

The map above shows all rural and exurban counties in either red or green. Green counties had a natural increase in 2012, meaning they had more births than deaths. Red counties had more deaths than births. If you click on the map, you’ll get an interactive version. Click any county and you’ll find population statistics for the year ending July 1, 2012. Or, just click here.

To be clear, this data doesn’t include migration of people either in to our out of a county. This is simply a comparison of births and deaths. And, remember, that exurban counties are within metro regions, but have a population that largely lives in rural settings.

Demographer Ken Johnson says there has been a diminishing number of births in the U.S. recently. Last year there were 3.95 million live births, an 8.3 percent decline from 2006-7. Johnson, who is with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, says the recession is to blame for this decline in fertility. See Johnson’s full report here.

Rural counties had more counties with natural decreases in population because rural counties generally have older populations. For example, the county with the greatest difference between births and deaths in the last year was Citrus County in Florida, a retirement community. There were 1,324 more deaths there than births in the 12 month period reported by the Census.

Rural America had a disproportionate number of deaths in this 12 month period. Rural counties had 16.4 percent of the population in 2012, but they had 21 percent of the nation’s recorded deaths — a result of rural America’s generally older population.

Rural counties recorded 15.1 percent of the nation’s live births. There were nearly 68,000 more births than deaths in rural counties in 2012.

[imgcontainer right] [img:Screen+Shot+2013-03-18+at+12.57.09+PM.png] [source]Kenneth Johnson/Carsey Institute[/source] The number of counties with more deaths than births each year has been rising as the U.S. population has grown older. The number shot up during the recession, however, as the number of births decreased. [/imgcontainer]

The Census report spawned a number of headlines about “dying” counties.  In most rural counties with more deaths than births, however, the numbers were very close. In about half (463) of the 943 rural counties that had a natural decrease in 2012, there were 25 or fewer more deaths than births.

Demographer Johnson admits that predicting population changes is “perilous,” but that the recent rise in natural decreases in county populations “may be a harbinger of future trends.” He writes:

Once natural decrease begins in a county, it is likely to reoccur. Current demographic forces also increase the likelihood of future natural decrease. The large baby boom cohorts poised for retirement will increase the number of older adults at high risk of mortality dramatically over the next several decades…

Natural decrease will likely continue in many areas and appear for the first time in others, but this is not a demographic certainty for all areas. The recent influx of immigrants to some regions of rural and urban America has brought a significant increase in births, but it has had little impact on mortality. This has reversed the incidence of natural decrease in some counties and diminished the likelihood of future natural decrease in others.

Demography is not destiny, but one ignores it at their peril. With few young adults and a growing older population, the future viability of many natural decrease areas is not encouraging. Not all natural decrease areas face a bleak future. Economic development, an influx of minorities, high levels of civic engagement, and community cohesion have broken the downward spiral of natural decrease in some areas, but many remain at risk. 

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