More Deaths Than Births

Last year, one out of four U.S. counties had more deaths than births. Most of those were in rural America.

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Editor’s Note: Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at The Carsey Institute  at the University of New Hampshire, has published a study of natural decreases in U.S. communities. The full study can be found here. Below are excerpts from Johnson’s report.

Births have always exceeded deaths in the United States by a substantial margin, so little attention has been paid to specific areas where more people die than are born.

Yet, in some parts of rural America, deaths have exceeded births for decades. This point was illustrated recently by a rural Kansas minister who said that he officiates at four funerals for every baptism. 

The growing incidence of natural decrease in rural  America has gone largely unnoticed, yet natural decrease is no longer an isolated phenomenon occurring in a few remote corners of rural America. Last year, 24 percent of all U.S. counties experienced natural decrease. And, for the first time in U.S. history, deaths now exceed births in an entire state. Between 2000 and 2009, more people in West Virginia died than were born. 

(The map above shows the number of years between 1966 and 2009 U.S. counties had a natural decrease in population — when deaths were greater than births. The dark red counties had natural decreases in 30 or more years. The white counties had no years of natural decreases. Click on the map to see a larger version.)

West Virginia may be a harbinger of things to come. In several other states, births now outnumber deaths by the thinnest of margins. For example, last year in Maine there were only 106 births for every 100 deaths. Overall, births exceeded deaths in Maine by just 789 according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. These margins may well become even thinner in the near future. 

The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics reflect the adverse impact of the current recession on U.S. births. In all, 260,000 fewer babies were born in the twelve months ending in June of 2010 than were born in the twelve months ending in June of 2008. This represents a 6 percent decline in just two years.

More Common in Rural Areas

More than 90 percent of U.S. counties with episodes of natural decrease are classified as nonmetropolitan. Between 2000 and 2009, 750 nonmetropolitan counties (36 percent) had more people die in them than be born. This is up from 29 percent in the 1990s. 

The incidence and severity of natural decrease is influenced by proximity to metropolitan areas. Nearly 45 percent of remote rural counties—those not adjacent to a metropolitan area—had natural decrease between 2000 and 2009. In contrast, only 30 percent of rural counties adjacent to metropolitan counties experienced natural decrease. Natural decrease is regionally concentrated. 

The earliest occurrences of it in the 1950s were in agricultural areas of the Great Plains, the Western and southern Corn Belt, and east and Central Texas, as well as in the Ozark‑Ouachita uplands. Natural decrease also was observed early in some mining and timber‑dependent rural counties of the upper Great Lakes and in Florida counties that were among the first to receive retirement migrants. 

Later, natural decrease spread to other rural areas of the south, New York and Pennsylvania, the upper Great Lakes, parts of the West in the 1990s, and eventually to Indiana and Ohio.  

The heavy concentrations of natural decrease counties in the Great Plains and in the Corn Belt reflect the linkage between dependence on agriculture and persistent out-migration and low fertility. Farming counties are the most likely to suffer natural decrease; nearly 50 percent experienced natural decrease between 2000 and 2009. Many agricultural counties have sustained decades of outmigration by young adults, leaving behind fewer young families of childbearing age. 

Natural decrease also is observed in many rural counties classified as retirement destinations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retirement counties have received a substantial net inflow of older adults for many years. Older migrants push up mortality rates, while obviously contributing nothing to the number of births in counties. The retirement counties of Florida are the best examples of this phenomenon, but similar clusters exist in retirement destinations of the upper Great Lakes, the southeast, Ozarks, and portions of the West. 

Looking Ahead

The recent rise in natural decrease may be a harbinger of future trends. Once natural decrease begins in a county, it is likely to reoccur. Nearly 90 percent of the counties that have experienced natural decrease once experience reccurrences of it. 

The demographic forces stimulating natural decrease also increase the likelihood of it in the future. The cohorts reaching retirement age in the last decade and a half were small because they were born during the low fertility era of the 1930s and early 1940s. 

Now that the large baby boom era cohorts are poised for retirement, the number of older adults at high risk of mortality will grow dramatically over the next several decades. The recent decline in fertility associated with the Great Recession also increases the likelihood of more natural decrease in the near term. 

Predicting the demographic future is always perilous. Not all natural decrease areas face a bleak future. Although natural decrease will likely continue in many areas and appear for the first time in others, this is not a demographic certainty everywhere given the recent influx of immigrants into some regions of rural and urban America. New immigration has brought significant increases in the number of Hispanic births, which are impacting natural increase. Hispanics represent only 16.4 percent of the U.S. population, but they produced 26 percent of all births last year.

The ebbs and flows of natural decrease over the last half century have gone largely unnoticed. Yet the pronounced spatial clustering of natural decrease coupled with its protracted incidence in some rural areas underscores the significant implication it has for the future of these regions. 

With few young adults and a growing older population, the future viability of many natural decrease areas is not encouraging. 

Demography is not destiny, but one ignores it at his peril. 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. 

Kenneth Johnson is a demographer with The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

 

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