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‘Natural decrease’ cited as US counties’ deaths exceed births

By Hope Yen and John Raby
Associated Press / March 6, 2011

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WELCH, W.Va. — In America’s once-thriving coal country, 87-year-old Ed Shepard laments a prosperous era gone by, when shoppers lined the streets and government lent a helping hand. Now, here as in one-fourth of all US counties, West Virginia’s graying residents are slowly dying off.

Hit by an aging population and a poor economy, a near-record number of US counties are experiencing more deaths than births in their communities, a phenomenon demographers call “natural decrease.’’

Years in the making, the problem is spreading amid a prolonged job slump and a push by Republicans in Congress to downsize government and federal spending.

“You’re the anchors of our Main Streets,’’ President Obama told small business leaders in Cleveland recently. “We want your stories — your successes, your failures, what barriers you’re seeing out there to expand. How can America help you succeed so that you can help America succeed?’’

Local businesses in Welch began to close after US Steel departed McDowell County, which sits near Interstate 77, once referred to as the “Hillbilly Highway’’ because it promised a way to jobs in the South.

Young adults who manage to attend college — the high-school dropout rate is 28 percent, compared with about 8 percent nationwide — can’t wait to leave. For some reason, the fish in nearby Elkhorn Creek left too.

“There’s no reason for you to come to Welch,’’ says Shepard, wearing a Union 76 cap at a makeshift auto shop he still runs after six decades. “This is nothing but a damn ghost town in a welfare county.’’

In all, roughly 760 of the nation’s 3,142 counties are fading away, stretching from industrial areas near Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the vineyards outside San Francisco to the rural areas of east Texas and the Great Plains. Once-booming housing areas, such as retirement communities in Florida, have not been immune.

West Virginia was the first to experience natural decrease statewide over the last decade, with Maine, Pennsylvania, and Vermont close to following suit, according to the latest census figures. As a nation, the US population grew by just 9.7 percent since 2000, the lowest decennial rate since the Great Depression.

“Natural decrease is an important but not widely appreciated demographic phenomenon that is reshaping our communities in both rural and urban cores of large metro areas,’’ said Kenneth Johnson, a sociology professor and demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute who analyzed the census numbers.

Johnson said common threads among the dying counties are older whites who are no longer having children, and an exodus of young adults who find little promise in the region and seek jobs elsewhere. The places also have fewer Hispanic immigrants, who on average are younger and tend to have more children than other groups.

“The downturn in the US economy is only exacerbating the problem,’’ said Johnson, whose research paper is being published in the journal Rural Sociology. “In some cases, the only thing that can pull an area out is an influx of young Hispanic immigrants or new economic development.’’

The predicament is starkest in places like Welch. In the 1960s, McDowell County ranked tops in the US in coal production. Even as it began to stumble, President Kennedy took notice and pushed federal aid to the region. McDowell residents were the first to get federal food stamps when they were rolled out in the Kennedy administration.

After US Steel sold the last of its mining operations by 2003, folks in southern West Virginia began counting on new highway projects to prop up the long-struggling area.

“One of the promises we’re waiting to come is the highway,’’ said Carolyn Falin, an assistant school superintendent in McDowell County.

From the east, the Coalfields Expressway would bypass the many two-lane, truck-clogged roads zigzagging through the mountainous region. It would link a freeway to the Virginia state line 65 miles to the southwest.

So far, only a few miles are open. Design work on most of it hasn’t been finished.

From the west, a 95-mile King Coal Highway is also envisioned, with some bridge work and a few miles now under construction.

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