WASHINGTON, March 14 (RIA Novosti) - Young adults are fleeing rural America, leaving behind a record number of counties across the United States that are dying off – or “naturally decreasing” through a higher number of deaths than births, according to population estimates released Thursday by the US Census Bureau.
“I expected the number of natural decrease counties to go up, but I didn’t expect them to go up so sharply in such a short time. It was shocking, really,” said Ken Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, in an interview Thursday with RIA Novosti.
The data shows that in 2012 more than a third of the nation’s counties – 1,135 of the total 3,143 – had very few children living there and a high number of older citizens, an increase from about 880 counties in 2009.
It’s a dynamic that occurs over time, said Johnson, as young adults are “pushed away” from rural areas by lack of educational, economic and social opportunities, and “pulled” towards metropolitan areas where those things are more plentiful.
Mechanized farming equipment – which leads to fewer agricultural jobs – is part of the reason, but in recent years, he said, the migration has largely been driven by the recession.
“I’ve probably looked at this stuff for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what the recession has done to migration,” Johnson said.
“In the Great Plains, there were some counties that had 15,000 people at the turn of the 20th century, and where a lot of suburban counties have doubled or tripled in that time, these places have maybe 4,000 people,” he added.
Many of the fastest-growing areas of the country were in the South and West, the figures show.
"There are probably many factors fueling this growth on the prairie, but no doubt the energy boom is playing a role. For instance, the Permian Basin, located primarily in West Texas, and North Dakota accounted for almost half of the total US growth in firms that mine or extract oil and gas, during a recent one-year period,” said Census Bureau senior adviser Thomas Mesenbourg in a statement.
The overall US population continues to get bigger and the fastest-growing metropolitan area was Midland, Texas, with a population increase of 4.6 percent. New York still had the highest number of people, with 19.8 million residents, followed by Los Angeles and Chicago.
The census figures also point to the growing influence of immigrants. Without foreign-born residents, many metropolitan areas in the US would have had flat or negative population growth in 2012, according to the Associated Press.