The latest 2010 census numbers hint at an emerging America where, by
mid-century, city boundaries become indistinct and rural areas grow
ever less relevant. Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost
towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools,
More metro areas are booming into sprawling
megalopolises. Barring fresh investment that could bring jobs,
however, large swaths of the Great Plains and Appalachia, along with
parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and north Texas, could face
significant population declines.
These places posted some of the biggest losses over the past
decade as young adults left and the people who stayed got older,
moving past childbearing years.
"This place ain't dead yet, but it's got about half a foot in the
grave," said Bob Frees, 61, of Moundsville, W.Va., which now has a
population of just over 9,000. "The big-money jobs are all gone. We
used to have the big mills and the rolling plants and stuff like
that, and you could walk out of high school when you were 16 or 17
and get a $15-an-hour job."
Demographers put it a bit more formally.
"Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill
battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out," said Mark
Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau,
a research group in Washington, D.C. "Many rural areas can't attract
workers because there aren't any jobs, and businesses won't relocate
there because there aren't enough qualified workers. So they are
caught in a downward spiral."
Rural towns are scrambling to attract new residents and stave off
heavy funding cuts from financially strapped federal and state
Delta Air Lines recently announced it would end flight service to
24 small airports, several of them in the Great Plains, and the U.S.
Postal Service is mulling plans to close thousands of branches in
mostly rural areas of the country. The University of Kansas this
month opened a new medical school with a class of eight in Salina, a
regional hub of nearly 50,000 people, in hopes of supporting nearby
rural communities that have no doctors at all.
In North Dakota, colleges are seeking to draw in young adults by
charging low tuition and fees. It's part of a broader trend in which
many slow-growing rural states are touting recreational scenic
landscapes or extending tuition breaks to out-of-state residents who
typically are charged more.
Many rural areas, the Great Plains in particular, have been
steadily losing population since the 1930s, with few signs of the
trend slowing in coming decades, according to census figures.
The share of people in rural areas over the past decade fell to
16 percent, passing the previous low of 20 percent in 2000. The
rural share is expected to drop further as the U.S. population
balloons from 309 million to 400 million by mid-century, leading
people to crowd cities and suburbs and fill in the open spaces
In 1910, the population share of rural America was 72 percent.
Such areas remained home to a majority of Americans until 1950, amid
post-World War II economic expansion and the baby boom.
Among the struggling rural areas are vast stretches of West
Virginia in Appalachia. Several of the state's counties over the
past decade have lost large chunks of their population following the
collapse of logging and coal-mining industries during the 1960s.
In Moundsville, Frees describes his town, which sits in the
northern panhandle along the edge of Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh,
as appealing in some ways because of its low cost of living and
friendly atmosphere in which "people talk to each other." But
opportunities are few for the area's young adults, other than
perhaps the $7- or $8-an-hour jobs at the nearby Walmart store.
"The young kids today are fleeing the area," Frees said. "They
get the education and then they leave because there's nothing here
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Other rural U.S. counties suffering big declines include
Issaquena, Jefferson and Sharkey in Mississippi; Sheridan and Towner
in North Dakota; Kiowa in Kansas; Cimarron in Oklahoma; Tensas
Parish in Louisiana; Monroe in Arkansas; and Cottle, King and
Culberson in Texas. All had percentage losses of 20 percent or more
over the past decade.
The numbers are based partly on an analysis by the Population
Reference Bureau. The data were supplemented with calculations by
Robert Lang, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las
Vegas, and William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings
Institution. "Rural" is generally defined as non-metro areas with
fewer than 50,000 people.
While rural America shrinks, larger U.S. metropolitan areas have
enjoyed double-digit percentage gains in population over the past
several decades. Since 2000, metros grew overall by 11 percent, with
the biggest gains in suburbs or small- or medium-sized cities. In
fact, of the 10 fastest-growing places, all were small cities
incorporated into the suburbs of expanding metro areas, mostly in
California, Arizona and Texas.
In all, the share of Americans living in suburbs has climbed to
an all-time high of 51 percent. Despite sharp declines in big cities
in the Northeast and Midwest since 2000 due to the recession, U.S.
cities increased their share by 3 percentage points to 33 percent.
"These new patterns suggest that there will be a blurring of
boundaries as regions expand well beyond official government-defined
definitions," Frey said. "People like to ‘have it all' -- affordable
housing in a smaller-town setting, but in close proximity to jobs
and big-city amenities such as specialized shopping, cultural
events, and major sports and entertainment venues."
"Many moderate-sized metro areas can fulfill all of these needs,"
The Census Bureau will soon begin to define new "combined
statistical areas" -- often referred to by demographers as
megapolitan areas or megalopolises -- based on growth and
overlapping commuter traffic. Some analysts point to a merger of
areas between Austin and San Antonio, between Tampa and Orlando, and
possibly between Phoenix and Tucson, with the Washington-Baltimore
region extending southward to Richmond, Va.
These new megalopolises could help spur corporate and government
investment in major cities and the growing small towns in between.
"There's such a large share of population that is now in reach of
a substantial metropolitan center, due to transit systems and
highways, that the traditional notion of small-town America is
changing," said Lang, who has done extensive research on U.S.
megapolitan and regional growth.
"Fewer and fewer people live in the deeply rural places, and for
most people in smaller towns, a big regional hospital or a Walmart
or strip mall is not too far away," he said.
He and other demographers believe that rural areas will remain
viable, although many will be swallowed up by booming metropolitan
areas and linked into sprawling megalopolises. Far-flung rural
counties boasting vacation and outdoor recreation also will continue
as popular destination points for young couples, retirees and
Lang said he hoped the growing convergence of major metro areas
-- and smaller towns in between -- will promote better regional
planning and cooperation rather than leading to individual cities
acting as rivals for new investment. He said such collaboration
might mean development of more roads or regional high-speed rail, or
new approaches to water and energy conservation in the Mountain
By HOPE YEN]
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