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Cradle or the Grave? How does the South fare in recent population figures?

Cradle or the Grave? How does the South fare in recent population figures?

Recently published U.S. Census population data provide a stark picture of the demographic changes affecting communities across the nation—and the stark challenges faced by rural America in particular. According to the data, one in three U.S. counties experienced “natural decrease”— a term used when the number of deaths exceeds the number of births.

Represented in isolation, these figures reflect a bleak proposition for many communities. However, the underlying causes represent a number of interrelated factors: the natural aging of the American population, the continued migration of younger workers to urban communities, and the sober fact that during recessions (apparently our post-recession period included) couples often make a finacially driven decision to delay additions to the family.

Nationwide, 1,135 of a total of 3,143 (36 percent) counties experienced natural decrease, yet regional and state-level figures tell a slightly different story. Thirty-seven percent (490/1,138) of Southern counties experienced natural decrease, slightly lower than the Midwest and the Northeast, but significantly higher than the West at 23 percent. 

Disaggregated by state, however, the figures show a significant gap in the vitality of the South’s communities. In Mississippi, 89 percent of the state’s counties had more births than deaths in 2012, while in West Virginia only 16 percent of counties had more births than deaths. In fact, West Virginia is the only state on record to ever report aggregate statewide natural decrease.

Nationwide, huge disparities can be found when the rural or urban status is taken in isolation. Rural communities are typically home to a disproportionately older population of residents. The latest Census figures indicate that 46 percent of rural counties experienced natural decrease compared to only 17 percent of urban counties.

Regional and state figures show signifcant differences in the rural versus urban breakdown of natural decrease. In the Northeast, 61 percent of rural counties experienced natural decrease compared to 31 percent for the West; similiarly 23 percent of urban counties in the Northeast experienced natural decrease, compared to only 5 percent for the West. In the South, 47 percent of rural counties experienced natural decrease, compared to just 21 percent of urban counties.

A sub-state analysis reveals significant differences in the percentage of rural counties experiencing natural decrease. In West Virginia, 94 percent of rural counties experienced natural decrease compared to just 14 percent for Mississippi.


Taken alone, these figures do not form a complete picture of the dynamics of Southern communities or the particular economic and demographic challenges they face. However, on the whole, they do provide a window into the significant geographic chasms that are likely to continue to grow as baby boomers age and younger people increasingly flock to urban areas seeking jobs. How disconnected communities grapple with population and economic shifts represents a challenge for everyone concerned with equity and opportunity.

This blog post is the first in a series looking into recent population figures generated by the Census that should inform a number of policy, economic development, and educational attainment strategies. Future posts will discuss the impact of immigration on the health and vitaility of Southern communities (as a counter-balance to natural decrease), and the geographic patterns reflected in poverty, health-care usage, employment opportunities, and other topics related to the South.