WASHINGTON (AP) — Rural America now accounts for just 16 percent of the nation’s population, the lowest ever.
The latest 2010 census numbers hint at an emerging America where, by mid-century, city boundaries become indistinct and rural areas grow ever less relevant. Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools, demographers say.
These places posted some of the biggest losses over the past decade as young adults left and the people who stayed got older, moving past childbearing years.
‘‘This place ain’t dead yet, but it’s got about half a foot in the grave,’’ said Bob Frees, 61, of Moundsville, W.Va., which now has a population of just over 9,000. ‘‘The big-money jobs are all gone. We used to have the big mills and the rolling plants and stuff like that, and you could walk out of high school when you were 16 or 17 and get a $15-an-hour job.’’
Demographers put it a bit more formally.
‘‘Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out,’’ said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, a research group in Washington, D.C. ‘‘Many rural areas can’t attract workers because there aren’t any jobs, and businesses won’t relocate there because there aren’t enough qualified workers. So they are caught in a downward spiral.’’
Rural towns are scrambling to attract new residents and stave off heavy funding cuts from financially strapped federal and state governments.
Delta Air Lines recently announced it would end flight service to 24 small airports, several of them in the Great Plains, and the U.S. Postal Service is mulling plans to close thousands of branches in mostly rural areas of the country. The University of Kansas this month opened a new medical school with a class of eight in Salina, a regional hub of nearly 50,000 people, in hopes of supporting nearby rural communities that have no doctors at all.
In North Dakota, colleges are seeking to draw in young adults by charging low tuition and fees. It’s part of a broader trend in which many slow-growing rural states are touting recreational scenic landscapes or extending tuition breaks to out-of-state residents who typically are charged more.
Many rural areas, the Great Plains in particular, have been steadily losing population since the 1930s with few signs of the trend slowing in coming decades, according to census figures.
The share of people in rural areas over the past decade fell to 16 percent, passing the previous low of 20 percent in 2000. The rural share is expected to drop further as the U.S. population balloons from 309 million to 400 million by mid-century, leading people to crowd cities and suburbs and fill in the open spaces around them.
In 1910, the population share of rural America was 72 percent. Such areas remained home to a majority of Americans until 1950, amid post-World War II economic expansion and the baby boom.
Among the struggling rural areas are vast stretches of West Virginia in Appalachia. Several of the state’s counties over the past decade have lost large chunks of their population following the collapse of logging and coal-mining industries during the 1960s.
In Moundsville, Frees describes his town, which sits in the northern panhandle along the edge of Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, as appealing in some regards because of its low cost of living and friendly atmosphere in which ‘‘people talk to each other.’’ But opportunities are few for the area’s young adults other than perhaps the $7 or $8-an-hour jobs at the nearby Wal-Mart store.
‘‘The young kids today are fleeing the area,’’ Frees said. ‘‘They get the education and then they leave because there’s nothing here for them.’’
Other rural U.S. counties suffering big declines include Issaquena, Jefferson and Sharkey in Mississippi; Sheridan and Towner in North Dakota; Kiowa in Kansas; Cimarron in Oklahoma; Tensas Parish in Louisiana; Monroe in Arkansas and Cottle, King and Culberson in Texas. All had percentage losses of 20 percent or more over the past decade.
The numbers are based partly on an analysis by the Population Reference Bureau. The data were supplemented with calculations by Lang and William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. ‘‘Rural’’ is generally defined as non-metro areas with fewer than 50,000 people.
While rural America shrinks, larger U.S. metropolitan areas have enjoyed double-digit percentage gains in population over the past several decades. Since 2000, metros grew overall by 11 percent with the biggest gains in suburbs or small- or medium-sized cities. In fact, of the 10 fastest-growing places, all were small cities incorporated into the suburbs of expanding metro areas, mostly in California, Arizona and Texas.