The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

March 20, 2013

Census shows record 1 in 3 US counties are dying


TARBORO — A record number of U.S. counties — more than 1 in 3 — are now dying off, hit by an aging population and weakened local economies that are spurring young adults to seek jobs and build families elsewhere. According to the U.S. Census Bureau Edgecombe County is on that list. In 2010 the Census reported and estimated 56,552 people lived Edgecombe. Two years later the Census reported and estimated 600 had left.

Edgecombe County Manager Lorenzo Carmon said for years he has heard about the decrease in Edgecombe County population but the numbers that he is privy to doesn't show changes.

"I can't see where we've had a decrease in our population," he said. "I look a the numbers that we have for our water and sewer customers and other services that we have and I can't see a decrease. The fact in the matter is that we didn't lose but we held our own or either picked up."

Edgecombe's death and birth rate may backup Carmon's theory.  Over the last five years, there has been 455 more births (2507) reported to the county's register of deeds offices than deaths (deaths 2052).

Carmon explained that death count includes people who are from other counties but died in nursing homes or at the Fountain at The Albermarle, a retirement facility. He also noted that some Edgecombe mothers give birth outside the county  therefore those numbers are not added to the county's population.

Carmon and elected officials would probably like to see a spike in population, however giving the demographics of Edgecombe, is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

"People are not moving to counties like Edgecombe but are flocking to counties like Wake and Mecklingburg where there are plenty of job opportunities," Carmon said.  "Our young people are moving away."

One of the litigating factors of Edgecombe's stunted growth is the lack of employment opportunities. Well over 10 years ago, the economy took a toll and forced the closing several of the county manufacturing business. Since the closings, Edgecombe has been at the top of the state unemployment statistic.

People moving in and out of the county are also factors in the decrease or increase in population.

Census data show that 1,135 of the nation’s 3,143 counties are now experiencing “natural decrease,” where deaths exceed births. That’s up from roughly 880 U.S. counties, or 1 in 4, in 2009. Already apparent in Japan and many European nations, natural decrease is now increasingly evident in large swaths of the U.S.

Despite increasing deaths, the U.S. population as a whole continues to grow, boosted by immigration from abroad and relatively higher births among the mostly younger migrants from Mexico, Latin America and Asia.

“These counties are in a pretty steep downward spiral,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, who researched the findings. “The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age. Unless something dramatic changes — for instance, new development such as a meatpacking plant to attract young Hispanics — these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease.”

The areas of natural decrease stretch from industrial areas near Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the vineyards outside San Francisco to the rural areas of east Texas and the Great Plains. A common theme is a waning local economy, such as farming, mining or industrial areas. They also include some retirement communities in Florida, although many are cushioned by a steady flow of new retirees each year.

Johnson said the number of dying counties is rising not only because of fewer births but also increasing mortality as 70 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 move into their older years. “I expect natural decrease to remain high in the future,” he said.

Among the 20 fastest-growing large metropolitan areas last year, 16 grew faster than in 2011 and most of them are located in previously growing parts of the Sun Belt or Mountain West. Among the slowest-growing or declining metropolitan areas, most are now doing worse than in 2011 and they are all located in the Northeast and Midwest.

The Associated Press assisted with this story